The rise of social media brings along with it a number of pros and cons; one of the latter is the potential for the widespread broadcasting one’s criminal intent, or other information that could lead to negative consequences, in a matter of minutes. News reports of teens using social networking sites for the recruiting and promotion of criminal “flash mobs” in urban areas have left some wondering if those who engage in promoting pranks or criminal activity this way should be held accountable. Another recent occurrence, this one involving a famous figure, has intensified the discussion.
In August, a tweet sent by rapper The Game featured the phone number for the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The Game used to tweet to urge his more than half-million followers to call the number – presumably, as a prank. Within seconds, every phone line at the station was jammed. That left legitimate emergency calls unable to reach the station for almost three hours, and prevented emergency callers from receiving help.
Sheriff’s officials denounced the prank as “irresponsible.” But now, these authorities are facing the possibility of having to prosecute those who would use Twitter or Facebook to recruit their Los Angeles social media followers to cause mayhem and stand in the way of police work. In response, some large police departments are beginning to assign officers to monitor Facebook, Twitter and other sites in search of criminally-tinged posts, with the intent of stopping crime before it starts.
Officers admit this is no easy task. “This one is so big and so fast, and has so many branches to it, there are definitely some who feel overwhelmed by where to begin,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker, an avid Twitter user who unofficially acts as an online ambassador to other law enforcement agencies. “You have to trust your younger officers who were raised on it and think it’s perfectly normal.”
Legal experts caution police to follow the law when cracking down on social media. Prosecutors charged with holding people criminally responsible must be able to clearly prove that can be directly connected to specific crimes. Not all posts are explicit calls for violence; some, like The Game’s tweet, simply urge people to make themselves nuisances. Either way, this type of social media use should be sternly condemned. The person broadcasting his or her ideas often doesn’t realize that a joke or a prank can lead to crimes being committed; or in The Game’s case, that it prevents help from reaching innocent victims when they need it most.