"Clear and Present Danger" Pertaining to Social Media

Sep 19, 2017

Madison Harwell, Pepperdine student

In 2013, a 16-year old student in Ottawa, Canada was arrested for making bomb threats to multiple schools across North America and a few in Canada. On Twitter with the handle of @ProbablyOnion the teen regularly tweeted about his bomb threats and asked for Twitter suggestions on who he should "swat" next. "Swatting" is the act of calling in false emergencies to 9-1-1. Eventually, investigators located the boy and he faced 60 criminal charges including "conveying false information with intent to alarm" after 30 false calls pertaining alleged bomb threats. Unfortunately, this is not a one-off incident but a wave of similar occurrences.

The popularity of what researchers call "social media performance crimes" are on the rise. These "performance crimes" are intentional acts by perpetrators to commit violent acts and then brag about their work through social media by livestreams, post updates, or uploaded photos. According to an interview with Ray Surette, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, he contends there have always been performance criminals but these acts weren't publicized "before the rise of social media." Until now, criminals have tried to deliberately tried to hide not only the crime, but also their personal identities. In the social media realm, there's been a skyrocketing of evidence displayed on social media for all eyes to see.

Martin Shkreli, the controversial pharmaceutical executive and former hedge fundmanager, just this past week was sent to jail, and not for the fraud conviction for which he was awaiting sentencing. Federal District Court in Brooklyn, Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto revoked Shkreli's five-million-dollar bail because of two Facebook status updates Shkreli posted while on bail, where he offered $5,000 to anyone who could get a strand of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's hair while she was on a book tour. According to the New York Times, "At the hearing in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, Judge Kiyo A. Matsumoto said that Mr. Shkreli's post could be perceived as a true threat. "That is a solicitation to assault in exchange for money that is not protected by the First Amendment," she said." Afterwards, Shkreli altered the controversial post and contended that his intent had been satirical, then once prosecutors maintained that it was possible that one of his social media would take the post seriously, he deleted the request.

Both these instances show that although the Supreme Court handed down the verdict on Schenck vs. US in 1919, it's still extremely relevant today concerning the freedom of speech on social media. Millions of dollars are being invested by police units in the monitoring of social media, According, to an in-depth report by the Washington Post on social media expenditures by police states, "hundreds of local police departments across the United States have collectively spent about $4.75 million on software tools that can monitor the locations of activists at protests or social media hashtags used by suspects, according to new research. The research, by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization focusing on criminal justice issues, aims to take acomprehensive lookat the fast-growing phenomenon of social media-monitoring by law enforcement. Using public records, the Brennan Center tracked spending by 151 local law enforcement agencies that have contracted with start-ups that siphon data from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other sites, largely out of the public eye."

Recently, many different platforms have arisen catering to the analyzation of data shared including Geofeedia, SnapTrends, and Dataminr. Specifically, the Geofeedia platform describes itself as "a social media intelligence platform that associates social media posts with geographic locations."

Law enforcement officials say not only do criminals brag about committed crimes on their social media circles, but witnesses may also be helpful in posting of clues to the event or videos of circumstances. Because these profiles are for public consumption, police don't need immediate warrants like they would for cell phone records.

While the monitoring of social media to protect individuals may seem like a positive, some individuals and organizations don't see it that light. In an article by the Chicago Tribune, it cited Malkia Cyril who is the executive director for Media Justice in Oakland. Cyril had just co-signed a letter with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to Facebook and Twitter "calling for more protection of user data." Cyril opposing such monitoring stated, "the bottom line is, we're in a 21st-century movement for human and civil rights all over the country and all over the world. (Surveilling) [T]he social media profiles and social media information of users who are not suspected of any crime violates our constitutional right to free speech. It also violates our constitutional right to privacy." While privacy concerns are natural in this day and age with uncertain user policies and information tracking, the thought of calling for protections of public user data is absurd. The claim echoes like the frustrations of a criminal standing on a public street corner yelling about their recent murder, and then subsequently being upset when the police arrest and charge them for the murder. If criminals or guilty parties post on some extremely public forums that's their personal decision but just be aware that the police will be monitoring it. All in all, I'm for the monitoring of social media interactions and if statements posted on varying platforms have been taken out of context your innocence should be easily proven to the questioning party (the authorities), or if more severe in a court of law. The voyeuristic nature of social media seems to be the downfall for a new class of burgeoning social media criminals.


Madison Harwell, a student in Jon Pfeiffer's Fall 2017 Media Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the above essay in response to the prompt:In Schenck v US, the Supreme Court held that the freedom of speech could be restricted if the words spoken or printed represented to society a "clear and present danger." We live in a society in which our thoughts can be read instantly and out of context i.e. tweets, ig posts, FB posts, etc. These posts, even if said jokingly, have potential to seriously scare people. At what point should social media interaction (if at all) be monitored, or have we grown so used to #FakeNews that no such filter is needed?

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