August 17, 2020

Big Tech Abets Anarchy

What role does social media play in aiding and abetting widespread lawlessness?

A week ago in Chicago, a city that already resembles a war zone, hundreds of rioters descended upon the Magnificent Mile and other parts of downtown Chicago where they proceeded to smash windows and loot stores, precipitating at least $60 million in property damage and the injury of 13 police officers. Since such riots and looting are happening with increasing frequency, a question must be asked: What role does social media play in aiding and abetting widespread lawlessness?

“City officials said the seeds for the crime spree were sown on social media Sunday afternoon, after officers shot and wounded a 20-year-old man who allegedly had fled and fired shots at them,” the Chicago Tribune reported. “Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Monday decried ‘a false rumor on social media’ that police officers killed a 15-year-old boy. That led residents to clash with police officers in Englewood and prompted calls to head toward downtown.”

Calls to head downtown? On what social media sites? After a small crowd — which was reportedly stoked by a man who wrongly stated that police shot a teenage boy — was ostensibly “cooled off,” Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown noted that messages began to appear on social media, urging people to move downtown.

Nonetheless, Brown seemingly ignored that reality. “This was not an organized protest,” he insisted. “Rather, this was an incident of pure criminality. This was an act of violence against our police officers and against our city.”

On Tuesday, Brown’s fantasy gave way to reality. “When people showed up on Michigan Avenue in the downtown area with U-Haul trucks and cargo vans, and sophisticated equipment used to cut metal, and the methods that were used, and how quickly it got spun up… That wasn’t any spontaneous reaction,” insisted Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who added that the misinformation about a minor being shot “pinballed” on social media, leading to “caravans” of cars heading downtown.

Chicago police released one particular social media post bolstering those assertions. “Attention, attention, lotting start (sic) at 12 am,” it stated. “We will not be f—ing up the south side, east side, or west side. Downtown area and up north area only. Bring ya tools, ski mask, gloves.”

Lightfoot also explained the rioters knew police staffing would be low that early Monday morning and therefore picked “the moments where they feel like they have the best opportunity to make a move.”

That would be make a move again, as many of the same businesses had been looted six weeks earlier during the riots that “intensified” after the George Floyd protests.

Both Lightfoot and Brown brought Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx into the mix, saying there weren’t enough consequences for those looters. Foxx insisted she prosecuted the majority of offenders, but a Chicago Tribune analysis of her record suggests otherwise, noting that in her three years on the job she had dismissed all charges against 29.9% of felony defendants, compared to a 19.4% dismissal rate compiled by her predecessor Anita Alvarez. “In all, a total of 25,183 people had their felony cases dismissed under Foxx through November 2019, up from 18,694 for a similar period under Alvarez,” the Tribune revealed.

Thus we have what amounts to a perfect storm: A police force unprepared for widespread violence even though it occurred before; a prosecutor who admits she urged fellow prosecutors to dismiss misdemeanor and some felony charges against earlier rioters, but insists she’s doing her job — even as she explains it must be viewed through the prism of a global health crisis, record unemployment, and systemic racism; and a mayor who, like so many other equally clueless Democrat mayors and governors, has fiddled while her city burns.

On the brighter side, a task force composed of police detectives, FBI agents, and officials with the U.S. attorney’s office are poring over video of the riots seeking to identify and prosecute those involved.

It’s not enough. It’s time to begin a full-scale investigation into social media’s role in organizing violence, and make every effort to hold those companies accountable. Americans are quite familiar with social media’s ability to remove content that, as the parlance goes, “doesn’t meet community standards.” Much of that effort is dedicated to censoring conservative political opinions, or anything that does not align with the progressive worldview regarding the coronavirus. Yet it is truly remarkable that virtually no effort is being made to remove posts encouraging the looting, arson, and violence, including murder, that permeate their sites. Nor, it seems, is there any effort to remove content that glorifies the same.

Addressing those realties should have begun long ago. In June, Fox News reported on the reality of social media’s role, noting that it is being used “to coordinate some of these [George Floyd] protests” and “by extreme groups as well.” It was also reported that Michael J. Avery of St. Louis was arrested for using social media to encourage looting in the city when he called for a “red level action” that the FBI explained was “associated with a high level of violence.” Federal prosecutors also charged Marcus Marlvin Hunt of St. Louis with “distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction, saying he had posted instructions on how to make napalm,” and that investigators “were monitoring social media posts about the protests.”

Unfortunately, that indicates a passive approach to the problem, as only the user side of the social media equation is addressed.

In late June, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf wrote a letter addressed to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Alphabet, and Apple asking them to ensure that their platforms weren’t used to organize or facilitate rioting, but ultimately concluded that it was up to them “to decide how to handle content on [their] platforms.”

Is it? Federal statute 18 U.S. Code § 2385 — Advocating overthrow of Government states that anyone who “prints, publishes, edits, issues, circulates, sells, distributes, or publicly displays any written or printed matter advocating, advising, or teaching the duty, necessity, desirability, or propriety of overthrowing or destroying any government in the United States” can be fined and/or imprisoned for as long as 20 years.

Federal statute 18 U.S. Code § 2384 — Seditious conspiracy states that any effort “to oppose by force the authority thereof, or by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States, or by force to seize, take, or possess any property of the United States contrary to the authority thereof” can be subjected to the same consequences.

As the above statutes indicate, there are no First Amendment protections that apply to advocating or facilitating the overthrow of government. Moreover, since these sites are private, the First Amendment is largely irrelevant. Both realties indicate that asking social media sites to clean up their respective acts is pure sophistry.

No one is above the law, including the aforementioned CEOs who have allowed their respective sites to be used to promulgate anarchy.

It’s time requests became demands, buttressed by the statutes that attend them. Perhaps the threat of civil and/or criminal litigation will further clarify Big Tech’s “community standards” — before decent communities themselves cease to exist.

Update: On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it will remove the pages of at least some groups that have fomented riots.

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