By Hugo Gye
PUBLISHED: 12:35 EST, 25 October 2012 | UPDATED: 12:35 EST, 25 October 2012
The Secret Service is encouraging web users to spy on their Twitter feeds and report any messages which appear ‘concerning’.
The appeal seems to be timed to coincide with the election campaign, when an increasing number of political partisans tweet threatening messages to candidates they oppose.
But it could raise fears of a creeping surveillance state, with ordinary citizens transformed into de facto government agents monitoring the speech of others.
The four election debates this year generated nearly 28million tweets between them.
While the vast majority consisted of harmless political commentary or wry jokes, a small minority of the tweets were threats directed at one or other of the candidates, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In an attempt to crack down on threatening messages, the Secret Service – which is responsible for the safety of top officials and candidates – announced on Tuesday that it was launching a new initiative to encourage self-monitoring of Twitter.
‘To report a tweet that concerns you, call the nearest field office in your state,’ the Service posted from its official Twitter account, @SecretService.
A later message read, ‘Contact your nearest field office with time-sensitive or critical info or to report a tweet.’
‘We’re not an intelligence agency – we’re consumers of information,’ spokesman Ed Donovan told the Times. ‘We cast a wide net for information, and that includes law enforcement agencies, federal agencies and the general public.’
If the Secret Service receives a report of an allegedly threatening tweet, the agency can subpoena internet service providers to track down the address from which the message was sent.
While those sending light-hearted abuse can expected nothing more than a reprimand, the Secret Service does sometimes prosecute those thought to pose a more serious threat.
Jarvis Britton, a 25-year-old from Alabama, is currently on trial for tweeting anti-Obama messages such as, ‘Free Speech? Really? *Let’s Test This!* Let’s Go Kill The President!’
Death threats are not protected by the terms of the First Amendment.