The 2013 Boston Marathon bombings threw the entire city into chaos and confusion. To cut through the noise and deliver crucial news, Boston’s police officers turned to Twitter – providing a reliable source for updates as events developed.

Social media also played an integral role in investigators eventually nabbing the surviving suspect. “They crowdsourced a lot of video images and photos that were uploaded by citizens who were there,” says Khai Hwa Toh, General Manager for Defence and Homeland Security, Singapore at DXC Technology.

In the realm of public safety, the significance of social media cannot be ignored, both as a means of communication and as a “trove of intelligence”. Social media intelligence could be a useful tool for agencies – giving enforcers the “ability to trawl the internet” quickly and effectively to surface key insights, Toh explains.

Analysing tweets, clicks, and likes

Social media intelligence can provide insight into sentiment and trending topics, in an era when negative views can spread online within minutes. DXC Technology uses artificial intelligence techniques such as natural language processing (NLP) to derive insights from across the internet: social media feeds, search engine terms, and online conversations.

This technique is known as sentiment analysis, Toh explains. NLP can determine the meaning of people’s posts and whether they feel positively or negatively towards a certain issue. “It is not just about what this person is thinking, but also in terms of statistically how many people think the same way”, allowing observers to get a sense of how the general public feels about certain policies, for instance, he continues. “Not every citizen will have the time or be sufficiently motivated to join Our Singapore Conversation feedback exercises.”

Agencies can get a much more accurate reflection of how communities feel by analysing “what you post on Facebook, what you share, what you click, like”. However, there could be privacy concerns that “you find out too much information about the good guy”, he notes. However, “for law enforcement to be effective, they really need to know as much as possible about [the bad guy], from whatever sources that are available” and that is where the trust capital between citizens and the government is important.

Lessons from around the world

In the US, Central Intelligence Agency agents carry out sentiment analysis on social media content in a way that lets them look at “instability and factors of concern”, said Teresa Smetzer, Director of Digital Futures, at a conference in 2017. “It also helps us to understand the authenticity of information,” she added.

This capability is useful in combating terrorism, as agents can quickly sift through large amounts of very disparate data in minutes, and can either minimise or thwart future attacks, Smetzer explained. “You hear about the things that we aren’t able to catch, but there are many examples of where we have had stopped events and protected the country and our national security,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Royal Thai Police is monitoring public posts and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Pantip, a Thai discussion forum, according to procurement documents published by the police’s Technology Crime Suppression Division. Target accounts and their followers are monitored and tracked, and officials receive notifications when these accounts use specific keywords.

In Malaysia, terrorists are known for using Facebook for propaganda and recruitment, Datuk Ayob Khan Bin Mydin Pitchay, Head of the Counter-Terrorism Division of the Royal Malaysia Police, told GovInsider. The country recently established a counterterrorism centre, and in March this year, Deputy Home Minister Masir Kujat told the country’s parliament that 249 Malaysians and foreigners had been arrested so far. They were allegedly recruiting members for terrorism via social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, reported The Diplomat.

In neighbouring Indonesia, the Mayor of Makassar has made it his priority to fight radicalism in his city, the capital of the province of South Sulawesi. Danny Pomanto told GovInsider how he had plans to build an app which allows community chiefs to report suspicious behaviour.

Social media has helped to bring the entire world closer, but at the same time, can also be used for evil. If public safety agencies can sift through all the chatter online and condense them down to actionable insights, it can make all the difference in stopping attacks before they happen.

Image from Wikimedia Commons