Misplaced Fears: Why Criminalizing Social Media Usage Is Wrong


ocial Media crime lawsSome government authorities in the United States and abroad want to criminalize the use of social media, concluding that by taking a blunderbuss approach to outlawing conduct, more crimes will be prevented. The problem with this strategy is that it appears to be largely based upon an unfounded fear of the unknown.

Recently, when a ‘flash mob’ allegedly robbed a 7-Eleven in Maryland, one report concluded, without any proof, that the crime was committed by “a large group of people coordinated by Twitter or other social media.” CNN quickly joined in and repeated a Maryland policeman’s unsubstantiated allegation that although investigators still “‘can’t confirm how this (robbery) was organized’, [they] believe the Internet was involved.”

Whoa! The police suggesting to the media that “the Internet” is somehow involved in the commission of a crime is the kind of allegation that will likely generate plenty of attention. An evil, nefarious conspiracy on the World Wide Web?! Cynics might suggest that such conspiracy theories are used by government officials to plant seeds of suspicion with the public to lobby for laws restricting social media.

Cleveland’s Mayor Frank Jackson, however, set an example this month for others to follow: the mayor vetoed his city council’s proposed social media ordinance seeking to make some types of Twitter, Facebook, and other online social network usage illegal. Instead of blaming social media for society’s problems, the mayor said that he wanted to balance his city’s interests “with the rights of law-abiding citizens.”

Recent prosecutions in Britain for “Facebook riots” punished two people accused of posting a Facebook event called a ‘Smash Down” and another page titled “The Warrington Riots.” The first post ended up generating no interest, except for British police who were waiting at a McDonald’s listed as the event location. The other Facebook-related case involved a drunk 22-year-old man who took down the page he wrote when he woke up with a hangover the next morning, and apologized for it online. Nobody was hurt and no violence took place, but both defendants were sentenced to four years in prison for inciting riots via Facebook — riots that never took place and only attracted the police.

A British judge said that these two harsh sentences would be a deterrent to others. One U.K. police department tweeted arrests of social media suspects:

Three people have been arrested on suspicion of using Twitter and Blackberry Messenger to incite violent disorder… http://fb.me/19hI1COJD

Critics argue that the penalties against these two social media users were disproportionate, saying that they were a “knee-jerk reaction” to appease an angry British public.

The First Amendment, however, protects the ability to spread abhorrent speech in the United States, a legal nuance apparently lacking in the U.K.

Prime Minister David Cameron told British Parliament in London that the:

Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them.

So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality.

The NYPD has a special social media unit to look for potential perps and clues on Facebook and Twitter. They are in good company, with other departments around the country also trolling the Web to solve crimes.

The reality is, however, that many existing federal and state laws can be used to prosecute alleged criminal conduct, whether in cyberspace or in the terrestrial world.

Case in point: A Cleveland rapper calling himself Machine Gun Kelly recently tweeted his fans a request that they tell him which local mall to gather at. When hundreds of people ended up there, they weren’t arrested on any social media charges. Instead, MGK and some of his entourage were charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct for standing on a table by a railing in the mall’s second-floor food court: old laws applied to new situations.