Since reports last year that Mall of America security were “catfishing” [pretending to be someone else on social media to deceptively gather information] Black Lives Matter protesters, details about similar incidents have begun to surface.
More recently, in Portland, Oregon the Department of Justice has admitted to searching the Black Lives Matter hashtag on Twitter to find people in the area to monitor. The surveillance project was motivated by the belief that Black Lives Matter members were threatening police officers online. In result, the DOJ began to search #BlackLivesMatter looking for persons who were harassing officers and in turn identified Attorney Erious Johnson, an employee of the Oregon Department of Justice, who just so happens to be black. Johnson’s tweets appeared in the #BlackLivesMatter.
One of his tweets was of the Hip Hop group Public Enemy’s logo. Through the search, Johnson was identified as a person of threat. This incident led to a five month long investigation revealing the cultural flaws of the DOJ.
For organizers like Teressa Raiford, social media surveillance is nothing new. Raiford, 44, the lead organizer of Don’t Shoot Portland say’s her privacy has been invaded both in the digital space and in her everyday life. On April 21, 2016 after being on trial for three days Raiford plead not guilty to charges of criminally obstructing traffic during a protest on the death anniversary of Michael Brown Jr.
Two months after Raiford’s arrest her intuition of being monitored were confirmed.
“After I got arrested on August 9th, in October we found out that the Department of Justice in Oregon was surveillancing us. They had been scoping us and looking for tweets.”
In an article written by Matt dos Santos, a Legal Director for the Oregon American Civil Liberties Union, in response to the report released by the DOJ he wrote, “Don’t be fooled, if you tweeted or publicly posted on Facebook about #blacklivesmatter and #
fuckthepolice, your data was collected and likely reviewed, contrary to the DOJs assertions and in violation of Oregon law.”
“At Access, our Digital Security Helpline works with platforms to help secure the social media accounts of users when it’s necessary to protect human rights and safeguard marginalized communities. Social media platforms have responded over the years by developing numerous positive security enhancements,” explained Solomon.
Solomon went on to say, “Social media platforms are increasingly where people connect with other people online. As such, police and security agencies, especially in repressive countries, often rely on social media to force people—members of minority groups, journalists, activists, and others—to reveal their social networks,” which is legal and overlooked by everyday users.
Oregon law states that no law enforcement agency may collect information on political, religious or social groups without criminal charges.
Sarah Armstrong, Communications Director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Oregon, worked with Raiford on her case.
“We here in the ACLU filed a brief in that case arguing how the court should interpret disorderly conduct.” Raiford and the Oregon ACLU feel the police department’s charge misrepresents the facts. “They tried to criminalize protesters because we were in the street. I never meant to obstruct the public. We were just expressing our art. They wanted to criminalize our art and our free speech-they couldn’t criminalize that,” said Raiford. “She [Raiford] was off the curb a was not blocking the street,” said Armstrong.
Raiford says that knowing her rights and the history of this country helps to keep her ahead of a corrupt system.
“When I felt like we were really being surveilled we began to make workshops and training available to the public. I use history as a foundation for understanding. In court we fought back by disclosing what we were doing because it is not illegal to organize. We wanted anyone who was illegally surveillancing us to know that when they tapped into what we were doing that that information would be the evidence we used in court against them.”
While she puts up a strong front, the effects of surveillance permeate her everyday activities.
“What’s really been happening is that I’m scared.”
Raiford says that she does not fear for her life but everyday moments like going to the park and hanging out with family and friends is a challenge.
“I don’t leave my house to go anywhere by myself. I can’t catch the bus. I don’t feel comfortable going to the park. I don’t even hang out with people anymore and it’s horrible. People will say, ‘Well this is what you signed up for.’ Actually I never signed up to be humiliated and dehumanized. Internalizing and accepting that and not being in denial…It hurts.”
While Raiford says that self-care “seems like a myth” in her line of work she makes sure to hold tight to her faith. “When I do go somewhere it’s to church. I stay in prayer and meet with my pastor,” she said.
A Modern Day Cointelpro
In 1971, the U.S. Government established a counter intelligence program called Cointelpro to monitor the activities of Black Panther Party. The program essentially destroyed members of the party and their movement. Some would argue that today’s surveillance practices on organizers within social movements is a mere extension of the program especially in cases like Raiford’s.
“I don’t have any privacy-none of us do- but to know it’s because you’re an activist… It does what they want it to do-it breaks you. It stops you from organizing and it alienates you,” said Raiford. “It means something to the protest and for the movement when their leader is arrested,” said Armstrong.
She feels like the world is watching her and says that she is tired of it.
“I’m tired of thinking about who knows what about me that I haven’t figured out for myself,” said Raiford.
The Power of a Hashtag
A range of social movements have demonstrated the power of social media, and #BlackLivesMatter is no exception. Nielsen research shows it is an important organizing tool & most searched. According to Nielsen’s 2015 report, Black Influence Goes Mainstream in the U.S. the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, “Is one of the most powerful examples of how social media conversations are effecting civic change.” In fact, their research shows that the Black Lives Matter hashtag was the most researched and used tag on Twitter among black users with more than 4.5 million mentions to date.
But that power has a dark side. In the past two years Raiford and her group decided to no longer use social media to discuss strategy after receiving phony friend requests on Facebook and learning about privacy.
“In 2014 we stopped using Facebook for messaging, strategizing and organizing. We shut down Google Docs. I’ve been working with different IT specialists who help us create our own spaces,” explained Raiford. Armstrong added, “There is a lot of internal issues with people trying to figure who is real and who is undercover.” Don’t Shoot Portland strictly uses social media for advertising and supporting other organizations in the digital space to build momentum.
While disheartened by the quality of her personal life and lack of privacy Raiford does have a sense of appreciation for technology. “I can be feeling on edge because I can’t go outside but I’ll go online and develop process for the people who are still outside.”
What she always keeps at front of her mind is, “my life matters too.”
Despite her lack of privacy Raiford says that she will continue to fight for justice.