Social media and the mob

Thirty kids walk into a 7-Eleven. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but few would laugh at what surveillance cameras captured next. The video, released by Montgomery Co. (Md.) police, shows the mob entering the convenience store early on a Saturday...


“I think that we’re nearer the beginning and the middle in understanding how technology can be used to commit crime, as well as how technology can be used to prevent and make arrests after a crime has been committed,” says Dr. Scott Decker, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University. Decker studies gangs, violence and juvenile justice. His book, “International Handbook of Juvenile Justice,” was published in 2006. Decker says flash mobs like the one that occurred in Germantown are “classic adolescent and juvenile behaviors” as they occur in a group, there’s a group process, and they pull in “fringe kids” who may not normally be involved.

The best security system in the world will not anticipate mob activity before it happens (although some companies are working on this, by building predictive analysis into surveillance programs). That’s where a careful eye on social media comes into play. Last year Decker worked with a team that interviewed over 600 people in five cities who were on probation in gang outreach programs and considered “at-risk” for crime involvement.

“Their adoption of technology over the course of the last couple of years has really been meteoric,” says Decker. “When you see a flash mob and you see it facilitated by technology, particularly Twitter but sometimes Facebook and other social networking sites, it reflects both the penetration of technology into these newer groups, but also characteristics of these groups … ages and other interests.” The widespread publicity surrounding surveillance cameras and YouTube has been dominated by “the bad guys” for a long time, according to Decker. And only recently have “the good guys” begun to strategically utilize these sites.

He says while there are many hundreds of millions of people on Facebook (about 900 million worldwide), the social networking behemoth is still heavily concentrated among younger people and their technological know-how. This is a huge factor in the how flash mobs facilitate; with Twitter, one person can send a message to 1,000 other people with just one click. But where social media is the hub of underground fraternization, it is also, rather consistently, the smoking gun.

Reynolds agrees it is vital to keep a watchful eye on networking activity. “It’s amazing what people will put on social media sites,” he says. Civil disturbance activities typically have a considerable planning element, and social media sites can easily provide that platform. “They’ll actually talk about where they’re going to hold their events, what their strategies are going to be, what types of weapons they’re going to use, where they’re going to hide,” says Reynolds. “For crowd control, it’s very helpful.”

In fact electric media storage has become the most valuable item to obtain with a search warrant. “When we think of contemporary LE, we still think of cars and patrol,” says Decker. “Now you look for the cell phones, the hard drives, the thumb drives. That’s a real change for law enforcement.”

Making friends with Facebook

Most agencies do have a strong social media presence by now. A recent International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) survey indicates of 500 agencies across 49 states, 81 percent were using social media as a form of public outreach. Philadelphia Police Department in particular uses Twitter for crime notification and reporting in real time.

Nick Newman with the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) has trained over 3,000 state, local, federal and tribal law enforcement officials in the country in computer crimes and forensics. In regard to flash rob violence, Newman says: “It is always the fear of the unknown … and how are we going to be able to respond to that?” Newman says law enforcement often wants to know how to find information on Twitter, and how to document evidence on social media so that it can be used in court.

NW3C is currently developing training that will demonstrate how to do just that. The two-day course will address major social networks and websites that utilize social content, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. “The big advantage to using Twitter is one person can use their cell phone, and who doesn’t have a cell phone in their pocket?” Newman says. “That’s good for law enforcement as well, because every time that Tweet is sent out, that’s one more thing law enforcement can [use] to investigate.”

YouTube may be particularly well-suited to flash robs investigations, as participants (perhaps not surprisingly) are sometimes keen on posting actual video of the event online. Newman calls this a “dream situation” where law enforcement has got multiple angles of the offense, from security cameras to every smartphone on the scene recording.

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