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Secret Service urges users to report threatening tweets

The agency tasked with protecting the president and other top government officials says people who see threatening tweets should immediately call their local field office to report them.

The U.S. Secret Service wants Twitter users to report threatening tweets against the president or other top officials. Screenshot by CNET

With less than two weeks to go before the November 6 presidential election, things are getting heated out there on social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter said that Monday's third presidential debate generated 6.5 million tweets, on top of the 21 million churned out during the previous debates (two presidential and one vice presidential). Most of that activity was harmless -- partisans supporting their candidate or taunting the opponent, remarking on hot memes like Big Bird or binders full of women, noting interesting exchanges, and more.

But according to the Los Angeles Times, some people tweeting during the debates had more ominous messages: death threats against either President Barack Obama or his challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And the U.S. Secret Service is not blind to these threatening -- and illegal -- tweets.

On Tuesday, and again today, the Secret Service used its official Twitter account to urge the public not to stay silent when coming across such tweets. "To report a tweet that concerns you, call the nearest field office in your state," the agency tweeted Tuesday, along with a URL directing people to where to find their local field office. And today, the Secret Service followed up by tweeting, "Contact your nearest field office with time-sensitive or critical info or to report a tweet."

Making death threats against anyone is illegal, and that's especially true when the president is the target. And while some people tweeting such things are no doubt 14-year-olds with no real sense about what they're doing, some may well be fully aware adults. And the Secret Service doesn't take such behavior lightly.

That's why the agency has been on Twitter for more than a year. "We're not an intelligence agency -- we're consumers of information," Secret Service 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."

The Secret Service is unlikely to send agents in dark suits to arrest everyone who threatens the president or other important government officials. But it will look at any relevant tweets and make a decision about what to do. The agency has access to tools that can help it locate any offending Twitter user, Donovan told the Times. "Last month, a 25-year-old Birmingham, Ala., man was arrested and charged with making threats against the president," the Times wrote, "after an anonymous caller reported a tweet that said, 'Free speech? Really? Let's test this. Let's kill the president!' according to court documents."

Of course, the Secret Service is hardly the only law enforcement agency interested in potential illegal activity bubbling up through social media. The federal government has increasingly been monitoring peoples' social-media accounts, including Facebook and Twitter.