The Secret Service is unable to detect sarcasm online, wants software that can help

secret service wants to detect sarcasm
Photo via Secret Service website

The Secret Service, a law enforcement organization tasked with protecting the president from bullets and crazy people, may have the social skills of Sheldon Cooper. The agency appears to have a hard time recognizing sarcasm and is looking to science to help with its shortcomings.

In a work order posted online earlier this week, the federal agency said that it is looking to buy software that has the “ability to detect sarcasm and false positives” in social media. It wants a commitment, offering a purchasing agreement for a period of five years.  

Aside from sarcasm detection, the work order also outlined other requirements such as “access to historical Twitter data,” “influencer identification,” “ability to search online content in multiple languages,” and “compatibility with Internet Explorer 8.”

The Secret Service’s desire for sarcasm detection software may be due to threatening tweets sent to candidates.

“Our objective is to automate our social media monitoring process. Twitter is what we analyze. This is real-time stream analysis. The ability to detect sarcasm and false positives is just one of 16 or 18 things we are looking at. We are looking for the ability to quantity our social media outreach … We aren’t looking solely to detect sarcasm,” Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, told the Washington Post

The Secret Service’s desire for sarcasm detection software may be due to threatening tweets sent to candidates during the 2012 presidential election. Two weeks before voters went to the polls, there were 6.5 million posts on Twitter about the election, including some that issued death threats to President Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. 

Two men ended up in jail for sending out Twitter death threats. Jarvis Britton, a 26-year old from Birmingham, Alabama, was sentenced to one year in prison. In September 2012, he sent out a tweet that read: “free speech? Really? Let’s test this! Let’s kill the president!”

Donte Jamar Sims, a 22-year old from North Carolina, was sentenced to six months in prison after posting threatening tweets before President Obama’s arrival in Charlotte for a campaign event. He posted tweets that said “Ima Assassinate president Obama this evening!” and “The Secret Service is gonna be defenseless once I aim the Assault Rifle at Barack’s Forehead.” He claimed that he was high on marijunana when he sent out the tweets and later sent an apology letter to President Obama. 

In the United States, it is a felony to threaten a president. Offenders may be punished with a fine and a maximum five year prison sentence. Had a sarcasm detector been around then, the Secret Service may have instantly figured out Britton’s and Sim’s true intentions, and the deeper meaning of the statement “Let’s kill the president.” If you think you can provide such a technological breakthrough, you have until June 9 to send the Secret Service a proposal.


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