The social media monitoring is part of a five-point strategy to combat unrest in Chicago, where more than 100 people were arrested on Sunday, August 8th. The 20-person unit within the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Prevention and Information Center will be tasked with 24-hour monitoring of social media activity to track gatherings that may lead to violence in the city, she said at a Friday news conference.
The plan also includes geographic lockdowns and promises to pursue “robust legal action” against protesters. “No one should ever feel they can break into our businesses, destroy and steal property and get away with it,” Lightfoot said at the conference.
In response to the mayor’s announcement, Colleen Connell, executive director of the ACLU of Illinois, said, “Social media monitoring by law enforcement holds a number of dangers, including chilling protected speech and opening the door to targeting based on protected speech, race, association, and neighborhood. It is therefore imperative that the City be fully transparent about the work of the new task force and ensure that its work not target Black and Latinx residents of Chicago for increased police scrutiny and encounters.”
This tactic of monitoring social media for mentions of protest activity is not unprecedented. As reported by the blog Lawfare and confirmed by the Washington Post, in the midst of unrest in cities like Portland, Oregon, the Department of Homeland Security has authorized monitoring of social media to track potential references to “damag[ing] or destroy[ing] any public monument, memorial, or statue.”
In the past, freedom of expression advocates have spoken out against such tactics, arguing that they have a “disparate” effect on communities that are already overpoliced, such as people of color, according to a November 2019 from the Brennan Center for Justice. “These risks have a chilling effect on free speech and communications both online and off,” the post warned.
The police shooting of a 20-year-old black man in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood has led to protests and rising tensions between the police and the black community, leading to looting in a high-end shopping neighborhood. Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the country and the protests have been fueled by decades of systemic inequality, Black Lives Matter Chicago cofounder Aislinn Pulley previously told Rolling Stone. “We know what causes intra-communal violence — it’s the economic disparity that exists within our neighborhoods,” she said.
Mon., Aug. 17, 12:28 p.m. This story has been updated with a quote from the ACLU of Illinois.