Monday, August 22, 2011

Just Some People Talking

There is a local news story that ties into something nationwide, and this has been bugging me. I'm glad to see that CNN finally pointed to the obvious.

Some kids went into a Germantown 7-Eleven recently and ransacked the place. Their numbers overwhelmed the store's staff and the teenagers were able to take whatever they saw off the shelves and leave. The video is startling, the place suddenly fills up and just as suddenly empties.

The press universally called this a "flash mob" and it led to discussions about how to regulate criminal use of cell phones and social media on the Internet.

It wasn't a flash mob.

Ubiquitous modern communications have made it possible for somebody to call up a bunch of people at any moment and say, "Let's go to X place at 2 o'clock," and they can call their friends and all of a sudden a few hundred people show up at X at 2. Sometimes there are crowds dancing or doing something strange, everybody looks at the sky, whatever. You can see that it would be possible to use your cell phone and systems like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word widely while staying under the radar.

In San Francisco recently the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police shot a homeless man in a train station, witnesses said it appeared they blew his brains out for being drunk, and there were some protests. Because the protesters were using cell phones to coordinate, to tell each other where the cops were, BART turned off cell service in their stations. When this happened in Egypt we considered it tyranny, when it happened in San Francisco we hardly noticed. Mobile phones and social media can be used for arranging things from birthday parties to protests, it does not appear to me that you can allow one and not the other -- the people dancing at the Jefferson Memorial recently, for instance, they organized that online, how are you going to regulate people talking about dancing in public?

It turned out that the Germantown kids had not even used any electronic media. They were riding on the bus and started talking, and decided to go swarm through the 7-Eleven stealing stuff.

Here's CNN talking about the situation:
This summer Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has wrestled with one of his biggest challenges since taking office five years ago.

Worried that flash mob violence would overrun city streets as it had elsewhere, the Cleveland City Council unanimously passed legislation that would criminalize the use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media for assembling unruly crowds or encouraging people to commit a crime.

But Jackson, after consulting with advisers, defied the council and vetoed the ordinance -- his first use of that power as mayor.

"It's very difficult to enforce something that's unconstitutional," Jackson said in an interview with CNN. "To make a criminal activity of just having a conversation, whether some acts of criminal activity are associated with it or not, it goes beyond reason."

Jackson suggested that the "emergency measure," as it was described in official records, was perhaps fueled more by emotion than by reason. And on Wednesday, the council members reversed course and voted 14-2 to side with the mayor. Little evidence links mob violence to social media

This is one of those things where the theory seems to make sense if you don't know anything about it. People who do not use Twitter or SMS or Facebook might imagine an online universe crawling with nasty people plotting dirty deeds. But it's just people talking, most of it is pointless and uninspired, some of it is magnificent, and some of it is lowdown and evil.

The episode illustrates the challenges facing government officials who try to control social media as a means of combating the sort of spontaneous group violence that has marred London, Philadelphia and other cities this summer. For one, free-speech advocates say such efforts are on shaky constitutional ground. Second, the nature of an open, public Internet makes controlling the flow of social-media messages almost impossible.

"The abuse of these networks and their capabilities hardly justifies recent talk of limiting access, shutting them down, or entrusting corporations and central authorities to monitor them at the expense of our privacy," wrote media theorist Douglas Rushkoff in a commentary for CNN.

In addition, investigations into alleged flash-mob incidents in Cleveland and other cities have unearthed little or no evidence that they were coordinated on the Internet.

But you watch, these incidents will be used to increase surveillance on private citizens. It doesn't matter that social media were not used, that these were not "flash mobs" but just regular old-fashioned "mobs," authorities do not like the idea of regular people being able to talk among themselves without regulation, it is a threat to them and you will see laws passed to make it more difficult.
The issue got new life last Saturday when more than two dozen teens ransacked a 7-Eleven store in Germantown, Maryland, a heist recorded by surveillance cameras that became a fast-rising star on YouTube. Montgomery County Police Chief J. Thomas Manger told CNN he believed the youths organized their raid on social networks, and the news media quickly embraced the flash mob angle.

Instead, police later discovered through interviews with suspects that the group was on a bus returning from the county fair when its members decided to raid the convenience store.

"It doesn't appear that Facebook or any of those things were used," said county police Capt. Paul Starks in an interview Thursday. Data reviewed by CNN found no evidence of coordination having taken place on Twitter.

The 7-Eleven episode followed a high-profile series of purported flash mob assaults on the opening night of the Wisconsin State Fair this month. Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said at a press conference last week that the mobs were not planned or organized via social media.

I don't know how much of the English riots was coordinated through phones and social media, but the Libyan rebellion certainly wasn't, as Internet and SMS (text-messaging) had been cut off there. People can manage to organize and raise hell without expensive digital toys.

Skipping down …
The phrase flash mob was coined in 2003 by Bill Wasik, then an editor at Harper's magazine. It was later adopted by Web-savvy folks to describe large choreographed dances and songs in public places, usually organized through digital messaging tools.

In recent years, the term has taken on an additional, darker meaning.

"The hijacking happened a long time ago," Wasik, who chronicled the flash-mob phenomenon in the book "And Then There's This," said in an interview. "Now you have these flash-mob robberies where nobody is sure exactly how these kids decide to do it."

The Eagles' song "Desperado" had some good lyrics, including this one: "Freedom, oh freedom, well that's just some people talking." New technology has made it easier for people to talk, we are not tied to a landline any more, we are not restricted to addressing the few people who are physically present with us, unimportant people can get the attention of prominent ones -- everything has changed but everything is still the same. People are just people, they mostly want to have happy lives.

People talking is a powerful tool for good or evil, when people can talk they can coordinate and accomplish things that no solitary person could do. People talking can solve problems as well as plot crimes, that's just the way it is. Once a constitutional structure was put into place the very first amendment the Founding Fathers added was the assurance of the freedom of people talking, whether in print or face to face -- not envisioning what we can do today. Because in a literal sense freedom really is just some people talking.

Attempts by authorities to squelch digital communications as a way of managing unruly gatherings have largely backfired.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was widely criticized by tech bloggers and free-speech advocates after he proposed imposing limits on the use of social media by rioters in the United Kingdom. As it turns out, many looters there were found to have mobilized not on Twitter or Facebook but through a private messaging system for BlackBerry devices.

"By the time something was on Twitter, it was probably two stages removed from events on the ground," said Mike Butcher, a digital adviser to the London mayor. "You can't predict a riot from social media."

Butcher and other UK authorities initially urged Research in Motion, makers of the BlackBerry, to shut down the BlackBerry Messenger system. But Butcher, not unlike the Cleveland council members, quickly changed his positions.

"There are plenty of innocent people using BlackBerry messaging to warn their loved ones about what's going on," he said.

And that's the problem. Most people talking are talking about good things, they are conducting their daily business, and if you shut it down to stop the bad guys you are shutting it down for everybody.

Skipping down again, they show how the social media can help the cops, too.
If authorities in the United States should learn anything from rulers in the Middle East, said York, it's that the Internet can be a powerful investigative tool. Syria, after banning Facebook for some time, unblocked it once the government was able to monitor activity there, she said.

"There are tools that authorities already have to monitor and pursue criminals," York said. "I'm always kind of surprised when there are calls to block (the Internet). One would think it would be more effective for the police to monitor it."

In Maryland, Milwaukee and elsewhere, police are using the Internet to crack flash-mob cases by posting videos or still images from security tapes and asking citizens to identify people shown in them. And yet many departments complain of being ill-equipped to monitor social-networking chatter.

Authorities in Philadelphia, where flash-mob violence has been among the most severe in the United States over the past few years, have ramped up efforts to monitor social media. Police there issued a news release in February boasting about how detectives were using Facebook to solicit tips and investigate crimes.

The FBI even stepped in to help monitor social-networking sites for mob activity in Philadelphia, The New York Times reported last year. But more recently Philadelphia police have backed off their condemnations of online networks.

"Social networking is not the issue," Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said last week during a online chat. "It's how people are misusing it in order to gather and then commit a crime.

"The media coined the term flash mobs," Ramsey added. "It's not the right term. I prefer the term rampaging thugs."

There you go, rampaging thugs. Same as it ever was.


Blogger Korag said...

I lived in a tyranny for 17 years.
The excuses are always the same: to protect people.
In the beginning you can relate to the reasons. As time goes by you start further protecting people. From evil thoughts, temptations, etc.
Do you know all our plays where censored? It was the dreaded blue pencil.
Sooner or later, it's the thought police.
One last thought: If Orwell was alive today would 1984 be about a theocracy?

August 25, 2011 9:30 AM  

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