All it took was a tweet. A famous rapper’s Twitter feed posted a phone number for the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, urging his more than half-million followers to call. Within seconds, every line on every phone at the station was jammed.
Legitimate emergency calls for help were blocked for almost three hours by a deluge of pranksters. Sheriff’s officials denounced the tweet by The Game as irresponsible. But now authorities are facing a tough question: Should those who send tweets be held liable for the problems their messages cause?
A summer marked by riots in England and flash-mob violence in several American cities, including Philadelphia and Cleveland, has officials debating how much they should — and legally can — crack down.
Those involved in the looting and civil unrest around London used BlackBerry messages to organize, leading British Prime Minister David Cameron to suggest shutting down access to social media for anyone suspected of using it for criminal activity.
The Cleveland City Council went further after a large flash mob disrupted a Fourth of July fireworks display with violence, passing an ordinance that would have made it illegal to use social media to organize a violent and disorderly flash mob. The mayor eventually vetoed the measure, citing 1st Amendment concerns.
Officials at the Bay Area Rapid Transit District have taken perhaps the most controversial step. Faced with a large demonstration on a subway platform announced by social media to protest the police shooting of a knife-wielding man, BART last week shut down cellphone service at the station. Officials said their goal was to protect the safety of subway riders, but critics immediately blasted the transit agency, saying it encroached on their free-speech rights. New protests Monday shut down several BART stations.
Law enforcement has long dealt with unwieldy crowds, whether they are at protests, concerts or even celebrations like a Lakers’ title victory. But Twitter and other social media have made it much easier to mobilize large crowds quickly, and police are struggling to keep up.
Some police departments are beginning to assign officers to monitor Facebook, Twitter and other sites in search of crime and also to understand how social media work.
“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’s become something of 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 say police face a delicate balance when cracking down on social media — and prosecutors must meet a high bar trying to show that irresponsible, even reckless, tweeting amounts to a crime.
As in any medium, if the message includes an explicit call for violence — say, a death threat — prosecution is more likely. “If I use skywriting, the law would be the same for that kind of thing,” said UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.
But most cases aren’t so clear cut. In the case of a celebrity tweeting the phone number of a law enforcement help line, Volokh said, prosecutors would have to prove the tweeter intended to jam the lines, either with a confession after the fact or with some sort of documented planning beforehand. That legal argument has been used against hackers who purposefully overwhelm an organization’s website so legitimate users can’t get through.
The Game may have been more legally protected had his tweet identified the number as the sheriff’s line and encouraged his followers to call in with criticisms. That sort of political organizing would have free speech protection, Volokh said.
Often in high-profile Twitter mishaps, celebrities have blamed posts on a hacked account or a rogue staffer. After The Game’s tweet, the rapper took to the Internet, blaming a friend for commandeering his account. Although certainly careless, Volokh said, a celebrity leaving his Twitter feed unattended is hardly a criminal act. The law is specific about when negligence is criminal.
For flash mobs, the guilty tweeter could be charged with organizing a demonstration without a permit. But as far as any mayhem that ensues, such as fighting, property damage or looting, the individual offenders, not the organizer, would be criminally liable, not the organizer, Volokh said,
“Just because you invite people to join you at some place, and they end up committing crimes doesn’t mean at all that you’re responsible for those crimes,” he said.
As for The Game, whose real name is Jayceon Terrell Taylor, even the rapper has seemed surprised at the amount of negative attention one post can bring.
“I can see it now,” he tweeted after the incident, imagining a jailhouse scene. “‘What u in 4 homie..robbery. What about u dog...Murder. What u in here 4 game... (Pokes Chest Out) A TWEET’”
As The Game investigation continues, Los Angeles authorities are also trying to learn from Twitter to help defuse future problems.
Authorities were caught off guard last month when a disc jockey invited thousands of Twitter followers to a concert in Hollywood, causing a mini-riot that closed Hollywood Boulevard for hours. The Los Angeles city attorney’s office is still determining what action to take against the disc jockey.
But LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said his officers turned Twitter into an intelligence tool a few days later.
The LAPD noticed that word was spreading on Twitter that the Red Hot Chili Peppers would give an impromptu rooftop concert in Venice Beach. That prompted police to send more officers into the area to make sure the crowds didn’t get too rowdy.
“It could have easily gotten out of control, but we got information from Twitter that allowed us to front-load officers down there, mitigate traffic and drinking, check permits and address the large crowd,” Smith said. “If we weren’t there when this started, it could have been a disaster.”