System: Self-Organizing/-Networked Protests
By the end of “Flash Crowd,” Niven’s fictional journalist, the guy accused of setting off the giant riot in the first place, has dreamed up a system to stop the violence from recurring. It involves the police both curtailing the teleportation technology and commandeering it. Cops, in his scheme, would get to ban all arrivals near the site of unrest, switching the booths so that they only send—directly to the inside of a police station or mass jail.
In the aftermath of the UK riots, the proposals floating around Parliament sounded every bit as intrusive, if not more so. Representatives of Facebook and Twitter were called in to discuss emergency plans to throttle their services. Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, has promised (or so it has been reported) that it would halt BBM if riots happened again. But for the same basic reason that the technologies have proved instrumental in crowd disorders—the ubiquity of their use, among not just young people but all classes and professions—one has to doubt whether governments and tech companies will really have the stomach to carry out these draconian countermeasures. Vital emergency personnel routinely rely on BBM and other smartphone services, so an outright shutdown might easily sacrifice more lives than it saves.
So what’s a police force to do? In late September, the Dallas Police Department played host to a conference called SMILE (Social Media, the Internet, and Law Enforcement), and this question was very much in the air. Mike Parker, a captain at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, said that his force monitors social media and looks to disrupt problems before they start. He used an example of an entertainer—he wouldn’t specify the name—who tweeted to his half-million followers that he would be making a guerrilla appearance at a local electronics store. Once the police were tipped off to this, they helped to make a clever intervention: By the time the celebrity showed up, store employees had set up a folding table near the front for him, and two cops hung around to watch. “You can imagine how happy he wasn’t, when he showed up,” Parker says with barely restrained glee. “His whole plan was to create a spontaneous, ‘cool’ event, and instead it ended up looking organized.”
But to stay abreast of such would-be mobs, police would need to monitor social media with a level of intelligence—attuned to popularity, cognizant of slang, filtering for location—that right now is beyond the reach of even sophisticated tech startups, let alone cash-strapped police departments. The pitfalls of this task were apparent when David Gerulski, from a firm called DigitalStakeout, took the podium to give a demo. With his service, he promised the assembled officers, they could stop tinkering with social media and “go back to kicking down doors and sticking guns in people’s faces!” On the big screen, he projected a map from his software’s filtering system showing recent and potentially dangerous tweets from Dallas. He drilled down on one tweet in particular, from a user named Evy: suck a dick and die! Jk. (:
“Who’s she talking to? What’s she talking about?” he asked in a portentous tone. “It wasn’t that long ago that Representative Giffords got shot in Arizona. So, with an angry post like this, you want to find out, is this serious?”
“It says JK,” someone called out from the audience. “As in: ‘just kidding.’ “
“Ah,” Gerulski replied. “I didn’t know the JK.”
The most sensible way of looking at this problem is to ask how policing strategies that succeed in the offline world might be extended onto social media. The key to “community policing” has always been that police can gain trust over time but then—when tensions run high—can also quickly demonstrate a presence, making it clear that the law is watching. At the SMILE conference, Scott Mills, an officer from Toronto who works with teens (his Twitter handle, @GraffitiBMXCop, gives a sense of his particular cred), puts this very principle into practice, integrating location-based social media with “walking the beat.” When Mills is called to a crime scene, he checks into Foursquare—and he knows so many kids, he says, that they come find him.
Beyond smarter policing, though, there is only so much that government can do. We probably need to accept, as a simple fact of life in the digital age, that the freedom of assembly will necessarily imply the freedom of an enormous group of people—sometimes people who don’t always behave themselves—to assemble with little or no warning. It’s worth mentioning that in “Flash Crowd,” the journalist never gets around to pitching the authorities on his plan to stop the riots. In the story’s very last lines, an anchorman at his network tells him about a new flash crowd that’s just cropped up. This one is nearly as large, but it’s merely there to witness the red tide at Hermosa Beach, which a celebrity had praised on TV. “It’s a happy riot,” his colleague says, a bit perplexed. “There’s just a bitch of a lot of people.” The journalist takes the assignment, grabs a camera, steps into the booth, and disappears.
Senior editor Bill Wasik (@billwasik) is the author of And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture.