The Department of Homeland Security sparked concerns among media circles after news spread that the agency was creating an online database to monitor journalists, bloggers, social media influencers and others.
Word got out after Bloomberg Government surfaced a job posting from DHS seeking a contractor for a “media monitoring services” project. The job entails creating a searchable database that has the ability to track about 290,000 news sources, both foreign and domestic, according to the DHS’s statement of work.
The contractor will help DHS monitor “traditional news sources as well as social media, identify any and all media coverage related to the Department of Homeland Security or a particular event,” the job description reads.
“Services shall provide media comparison tools, design and rebranding tools, communication tools, and the ability to identify top media influencers.”
The online platform should also be able to instantly translate media from 100 languages, including Chinese and Russian, into English. It should also be able to analyze the coverage’s “sentiment” and “momentum.”
With President Donald Trump’s aggressive rhetoric against the mainstream news ― he once labeled journalists as the “enemy of the people” ― many in the media industry saw the database as yet another attack on the free press.
When asked for comment on the purpose of the database, Homeland Security press secretary Tyler Houlton sent HuffPost a link to a tweet he published Friday afternoon.
In his tweet, Houlton maintains that the database of journalists is “standard practice of monitoring current events” and suggests that those suspicious of its purpose are “tin foil hat wearing, black helicopter conspiracy theorists.”
Houlton did not respond to HuffPost’s follow-up questions on whether a similar database had already existed within the Department of Homeland Security and what the agency intends to do with the information.
While many people ― journalists and social media influencers especially ― were worried about Homeland Security monitoring them, others argued that press-tracking databases are commonplace in the world of public relations.
PR agencies and communication firms often keep their own databases of journalists and various media outlets, with notes for each. PR professionals also often use programs that track how their clients are being discussed in the media.
For example, communication firms and public relation agencies use similar databases to find contact information for media outlets and journalists. Public relations professionals also use different programs that monitor news stories and how their clients are being discussed in the media.
And Homeland Security isn’t the only federal agency to monitor the media, according to CNN military and diplomatic analyst John Kirby.
“Given this administration’s denigration of most media outlets, I understand why the timing of this bid might look suspicious,” Kirby told CNN Politics. “But from what I can tell, this is nothing more than an attempt at media analysis.
“It’s not at all different from what I have seen other agencies undertake to better understand the communication landscape. In fact, it would be PR malpractice not to put something like this together.”
Susan Hennessy, a governance studies fellow at the Brookings Institution, also agreed that a database that tracks and monitors the media industry shouldn’t be of any concern.
She discussed the issue on Twitter with Garrett Graff, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s cybersecurity and technology program.
Read a draft of the Department of Homeland Security’s job listing below.