With Parler ban, Utah police and others may have lost a window into planned protests

The move also may have helped blunt the demonstrations, experts say.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of National Guard troops, highway patrol and other security come down the stairs of the Utah Capitol, where a dozen protesters gathered on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021.

First came the state troopers, scores of them scattered across Utah’s Capitol Hill. Next came the National Guard members, hundreds with rifles and riot shields. Police from other local agencies were on scene, too, many in heavy body armor and anti-riot gear.

All for about 15 protesters.

Scenes like this played out in state capitals across the nation Sunday as heavily armed police and military members arrived at Capitols only to find very few protesters — and none of the kind of violence and vandalism that marked the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

So, why did so many states appear to have greatly overestimated the potential for massive, possibly violent, protests? One reason may be that, in the days before the anticipated demonstrations, law enforcement analysts lost a key intelligence tool: Parler.

When Amazon kicked the conservative-dominated social networking site off its Web hosting service — at the same time that other social media channels were shutting down tens of thousands of accounts they believed to be espousing violence and insurgence — the analysts who were keeping tabs on those sites to help plan for Sunday’s rallies had to look for new ways to monitor protest interest and protester intentions.

Nick Street, a public information officer for the Utah Highway Patrol, which is charged with protecting the Utah Capitol, said open-source information certainly doesn’t create a perfect picture of what might happen, but Parler — as well as Twitter and Facebook — had become useful as places to take a pulse of “far-right groups that have some wild ideas about revolution.”

On Parler, in particular, many of those conversations were quite candid — and often quite specific. Among the immediately obvious security failures leading up to Jan. 6, for instance, was the fact that would-be revolutionaries had been promoting an incursion and planning for it — right out in the open — for weeks.

When those conversations were suddenly silenced, Street said, law enforcement lost visibility. “We did the best we can with the information we had,” he said of notions that security around the Utah Capitol looked like overkill Sunday. “We couldn’t not take threats seriously after Jan. 6.”

Amos Guiora, a professor who specializes in counterterrorism at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, called Parler and sites like it “a double-edged sword.”

“There were the obvious negative aspects of the site, which allowed coordination, but that was happening out in the open. Because they were speaking openly, you could follow, track and trace them.,” he said. “Shutting down Parler impairs law enforcement’s ability to collect information.”

Guiora didn’t lament the loss of public spaces where hate and threats were rampant, but “from a law enforcement perspective, it’s a loss,” he said, “because you had an important part of the picture.”

Hank McIntire, a former Army intelligence officer and former assistant professor of communication at Utah Valley University, where he lectured on crisis communication and social media, said the move to broadly limit social media communications would have a significant impact on agencies seeking to understand the people communicating through those mediums.

“There are legitimate concerns,” about the conversations that were shut down,” he said. “But the other effect is that you don’t get to see what they’re thinking.”

McIntire said the decision to shut down those channels and accounts “closes a window” and sets into motion a series of responses that are hard to predict.

“Do they now go underground? Do they go to another source — to a venue that isn’t open source?” he said. “If that happens, you don’t have a way to observe them or understand them.”

The immediate implication of the decision to limit social media channels, McIntire said, would be a scramble for the analysts who are trying to track the activity of individuals and groups active on these sites. “You now have to try to create other ways to access information,” he said. “It does create more work for you as the intelligence analyst or collector.”

Open-source intelligence isn’t a panacea. It’s just one piece of the analytical picture, and needs to be supported by information gleaned from more clandestine efforts. But Jeannie Johnson, director of the Center for Anticipatory Intelligence at Utah State University, said open-source intelligence is important, particularly since the opportunities to collect domestic intelligence are much more limited than many people think.

“Due to the Hollywood portrayal of this,” said Johnson, a former CIA analyst, “most American citizens have an extraordinarily overblown conception of what the FBI can and can’t do — or DHS [Department of Homeland Security], or certainly the NSA [National Security Agency] can do — when it comes to listening and watching.”

Those agencies are limited by constitutional restrictions on the surveillance of U.S. citizens. So open-source observations are often some of the best intel avenues available, Johnson said.

But Johnson doesn’t think the shuttering of such sites is a necessarily a net loss for law enforcement.

“Yes, you might have lost the open-source opportunity to track that information as warning intelligence,” Johnson said, “but if you think the trade-off is that you are able to prevent a much larger crowd from gathering, because you have interrupted the communication medium, then maybe you’ve made the right trade.”

Johnson noted, however, that the institutions that moved on the decision to interrupt those communication channels weren’t law enforcement or intelligence, but “digital titans” who may or may not have been making their decisions after consultation with government officials.

She said she was aware of such “long and ongoing” conversations between government agencies and Facebook, “the concern being that if you push these guys underground, they are much harder to track,” but she could not speak to whether Amazon, which pulled the plug on Parler by revoking its web-hosting services, had been having similar conversations.

Even if those conversations didn’t happen, Johnson said, the immediate undercutting of these channels might have proved to be beneficial. Those decisions, she said, may have disrupted the networks sufficiently in the short term “such that you may successfully prevent a much larger group of people from getting together and acting violently.” In the long term, it may only buy a bit of time. “They will find another outlet,” she said. “But it isn’t the easiest thing in the world to reorganize on a new communications method.”

And if that gets the nation through the inauguration with less violence, Johnson said, “maybe it is worth disrupting and losing the long-term intelligence.”

Guiora said many of those who might have been feeling comfortable espousing violence and even planning out in the open may have been prompted to move into more secure spaces. But, he said, “there may very well be other Parlers out there” where those intending to reach new members and even expose ambitions, plans and tactics may continue.

Law enforcement should be watching those channels, Guiora said, but not myopically. The inauguration of Joe Biden, he warned, “is not their finish line.”

Editor’s note Matthew D. LaPlante is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Utah State University.