Social Media Monitoring Systems

Social Media Monitoring Systems

AKA: “Social Media Measurement,” “SMMS,” “Social Listening,” “Online Analytics,” “Buzz Analysis”

Social media monitoring systems (SMMS) enable police to track an individual’s activities on sites like Facebook and Twitter as well as other spaces such as chatrooms. 

What is it used for?: 

SMMS can be used for a variety of purposes.  Police use software programs to mine and sort data from social media services, and may combine it with predictive metrics to assign “threat scores” to individuals. The government may use social media monitoring in criminal investigations, as well as to track social media posts at large events where safety may be a concern.  An increasing number of schools also use SMMS to track students.


Social media monitoring provides the government with an extensive archive of information on the private lives of law-abiding individuals. An examination of a person’s social media posts could reveal their location, daily habits, political views, sets of friends or associates, and other sensitive information such as their religion or sexual orientation. Even private messages meant only for a very limited audience can be read and tracked. The resulting loss of privacy is serious.  Freedom of expression online may become limited due to people self-censoring themselves. The risk of profiling increases with the government’s ability to extensively monitor certain groups of people on social media due to race, religion, or other characteristics, and the likelihood that the algorithms used may themselves reflect the assumptions of those creating them.  Ready access to this data also increases the possibility of  unauthorized use by government officials for personal purposes.  Furthermore, the potential for these harms multiplies as government agencies share the data that they collect with each other.

How it Works: 

Social media monitoring is not limited to just social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. It also covers forums, blogs, news sites, and other places online.

  • Social media monitoring tools crawl around and index sites. The software tracks traffic on each site. Some services with a lot of traffic, such as Twitter, are crawled real-time. Others with less traffic are crawled less often – for example, every 10 minutes or once a day. The data is then organized to make it easier to search. Some SMMS providers pay Twitter and other social media websites directly in order to access a broader set of content, including private data.
  • Government users enter a search query. Social media monitoring systems search this pool of data for keywords. They use algorithms to filter out spam and unwanted information, then hone in on the search keywords. Online posts and interactions are sorted based on their relevancy to the search query. Additionally, topics can be sorted for popularity to see what subjects are currently trending.
  • The government tracks the results. Locations and facts about people obtained from social media monitoring are compiled in databases, potentially stored indefinitely, and shared with other organizations.
How prevalent is it?: 

Social media monitoring is commonly used in the corporate sector to gather information about consumers’ interests. However, it has begun to spread in popularity throughout government agencies – the FBI is searching for more efficient ways to monitor social media. May police departments are using it – for example, a recent ACLU study in California found over 20 organizations using SMMS, most without clear usage guidelines. Even school districts are beginning to monitor students’ social media posts. Given the widespread use of social media, surveillance by the government and private organizations will only grow more prominent. 

Examples of Use