The Smooth Criminal And (Social Media) Society


Americans have always had an ambivalent attitude towards criminals: for the most part they despise the chaos they bring into people's lives -- especially if it happens to be their own lives -- but occasionally they take a shine to particularly successful and/or charismatic villain, and then it's a whole different story.

Jesse James was a beloved figure, robbing his way across the Midwest and sticking it to them Yankees, whose body was kept on ice so thousands of Missourians could pay their respects; the fact that his gang murdered 20-odd people -- well, no one approved of it, but that's the price of criminal glamour.

Al Capone was cheered when he was seen in public at baseball games, despite racking up 500-ish murders. The extra-weird thing about the modern social media scene is that devotees can not only openly express their "fandom" personally on the criminals' social network profiles -- they can get daily updates on their criminal capers, and (if they're so inclined) even encourage or commission new offenses! Yay!

There's been a couple of these: Kari Ferrell, the "hipster grifter" venerated by a Facebook fan page for swindling her way across America before winding up in jail (she was also hunted by a virtual MySpace "posse," as Gawker termed it); Craig 'Lazie' Lynch, a burglar who escaped from a British prison and eluded Scotland Yard for 112 days, using multiple Facebook profiles to taunt British police; and now Colton "Barefoot" Harris-Moore, a precocious, capricious, teenage kleptomaniac with a bonafide gift for stealing stuff. It would seem Harris-Moore was recently been hopping around the San Juan islands in Washington State, robbing stores, stealing planes without flying lessons, making off with experimental aircraft -- the usual. His mother is unapologetic in her support and pride in Harris-Moore's escapades, and Harris-Moore has also gathered a substantial following on the Internet, with -- yes -- his own Facebook fan page with (as of Thursday evening) 17,911 members.

In other words, a small town's worth of people are egging the young burglar extraordinaire on.

Is this ethically weird? None of this is qualitatively (or quantitatively) different from Al Capone getting cheered by 20,000 people at a baseball game, and Harris-Moore doesn't use the fan site in the commissioning of burglaries -- so far -- and it's free speech, blah blah blah.

Presumably, if there were something legally actionable in cheering on a criminal, the Facebook page would be taken down. But what if, the crimes were less glamorous, more serious, less mischievous, more malicious? There would probably be fewer avowed "fans," overall, but there still might be a good number of marginal personalities willing to go online and endorse, say, someone on a killing spree.

When does it become so unseemly the social network decides to take it down voluntarily, regardless of legal implications? (Harris-Moore's fan page is still upon Facebook).

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