Commentary

Fighting Flash Mobs Ain't Rocket Science (It's Surveillance!)

Sometimes there's a big public "controversy" which is really a non-issue, and "flash mobs" organized via social media belong in this category. The question of the moment is how to combat flash mobs, and there is an obvious answer: mass arrests and prison terms for people who participate in them, combined with efforts to change the social conditions which give rise to violent crime in general. None of this is beyond the ability of democratic societies to understand or manage.

What is causing the flash mobs? It's the confluence of longstanding social problems with new technology that allows virtually instantaneous organization -- and that's pretty much it. Some naïve or disingenuous observers may try to put a "revolutionary" spin on the disorder, but by and large it is simply rank hooliganism. Indeed, there's little that is new in the phenomenon: riots have been the bane of urban societies since the dawn of civilization -- usually involving some incitement by ringleaders or provocateurs, but basically spontaneous in character.

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In this context, eliminating the underlying causes of flash mobs will require addressing the persistent, intractable social issues -- poverty, breakdown of respect for authority, glorification of criminality, and so on -- which have always been associated with crime. Given the record of earlier attempts to fight these social maladies, it's reasonable to ask whether this is even possible (it's not like no one ever gave this issue thought before). But as in previous decades, the alternative -- giving up -- is even less attractive, basically guaranteeing that crime and disorder will continue.

From a policing perspective, flash mobs present new but hardly insuperable challenges. As noted, riots have always been more or less spontaneous affairs, making it difficult to predict when or where they will erupt. Previously, the best police could do was react swiftly to stamp out disorder at an early stage, before it spreads -- but social media could actually make it easier to head off disorder before it starts, if police are allowed to monitor social conversations (a concession that looks increasingly likely at this point).

As for people who participate in flash mobs or attempt to incite them, well, there's nothing new here either: you arrest them and put them in jail. This process is facilitated by a number of technological advances, including omnipresent security cameras in businesses and public places; DNA testing; location-tracking of mobile devices; and (fittingly) social media sites which allow law-abiding citizens to help identify miscreants. More thoughtful rioters might try to hide their identities from security cameras by wearing masks or bandanas, but even these won't necessarily be able to defeat increasingly powerful facial recognition software already in use by law enforcement (and the private sector) in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere.

Here's what won't work: social media blackouts targeting areas or populations affected by civil disorder. In addition to blatantly violating civil liberties, this idea (which is apparently under serious consideration in Britain) is foolish and misguided because it confuses the medium and the message. Does anyone seriously believe that you can prevent angry mobs from forming by blacking out social media? If the government shuts down social media sites, rioters can just resort to more traditional methods of communicating like landlines, graffiti, and direct verbal communication. In fact, it might be smarter to leave social media sites up, in the hope that miscreants will foolishly discuss their plans there, allowing police to head off disorder. In this scenario social media could actually be a tool for police, rather than criminals (at least until the latter get wise to it).

6 comments about "Fighting Flash Mobs Ain't Rocket Science (It's Surveillance!)".
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  1. Robert Repas from Machine Design Magazine, August 19, 2011 at 2:33 p.m.

    You're equating the term flash mob == riot, changing the meaning of the term with your post. Flash mob merely means an instantaneous gathering of individuals. Early flash mobs had dozens to hundreds of people appearing in a choreographed presentation that was really quite impressive (those who were there and saw the display actually applauded when it ended.) So let's be a little more precise in the way we use words today, when it's so easy to send the wrong message.

    And let me leave you with some flash mob action:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwMj3PJDxuo

  2. Erik Sass from none, August 19, 2011 at 2:58 p.m.

    Good point, I should have distinguished between them. Police probably have better things to do than stopping spontaneous reenactments of "Thriller." That said, the "mob" part of "flash mob" definitely carries an unfortunate connotation now. But you're right, I stand corrected.

  3. Clyde Smith, August 19, 2011 at 3:07 p.m.

    Mr. Sass, you may stand corrected but your article has not been corrected. This misuse of the term flash mob, which has been in use for peaceful gatherings for years, only began to be related to illegal actions taken by people using social media outlets to communicate this year and that was foisted on us by members of certain U.S. media outlets.

    I can accept that flash mob is now going to be used this way but it seems rather irresponsible and disappointing in a publication that regularly deals with topics related to social media to not at least acknowledge the shift in terminology.

  4. C. michael Toomey from SciTech Marketing, August 19, 2011 at 4:45 p.m.

    I agree with the others.
    The question of the moment is really how to combat obfuscated terms-- where flash mobs are entwined in reference with criminals using technology to manipulate criminal rioters and looting.
    While "None of this is beyond the ability of democratic societies to understand or manage.", it confuses readers and makes it harder for people to discern which reference is appropriate.

    Currently, a flash mob usually is regarded as a bunch of people making amusing and entertaining public social theater rather than criminal mayhem. Even the current TV ad campaign for a phone company portrays a simple choreographed routine as the flash mob's intent, although slowed outdated technology fails one hapless participant. This is hardly a criminal act to be worried about. But it shows a point of social reference for the act. Please correct the title. The article is better described as "Fighting Flarehem"-Criminals Coordinating Flash-Riot Mayhem"-- a more accurate and appropriate title. A law abiding flash mob set upon simple social theater shouldn't be confused with criminals by inappropriate terms.

  5. Kaila Colbin from Boma Global, August 19, 2011 at 5:57 p.m.

    Setting aside for the moment the correction of the term "flash mob", I'd like to applaud you for the points you make here. This is a concise, thoughtful, clearly articulated assessment of the situation in the UK. Bravo.

  6. David Murdico from Supercool Creative, August 24, 2011 at 5:54 p.m.

    Erik, I'm with Kaila on this but with one exception. You commented that "the police probably have better things to do than stopping spontaneous reenactments of Thriller." I would argue that they don't.

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