During the Iranian protests in the summer of 2009, young protesters organized by using social media sites such as Twitter, as well as by sending text messages. The current Iranian regime countered these tactics by blocking some of these sites and disabling text messaging services. Many logically believed that this was an attempt to decrease the probability that there would be uprisings or riots.
It turns out that new internet communication tools such as text messaging can have powerful effects on groups of young people and lead to marked disinhibition of behavior. Remember that huge impromptu snowball fight in the nation’s capitol after the huge snow storm? Such so called “flash mobs” are organized by the rapid spreading of information via social networking sites and text messaging among interconnected social networks. These flash mobs are organized and precipitated quickly, and may also dissipate just as quickly. However, flash mobs can get much worse than a light hearted snowball fight, and police are taking notice.
Flash mobs in Philadelphia have consisted of hundreds of teenagers whom run the streets and essentially riot, which may include injuries to bystanders. Local police have responded by more strictly enforcing curfew as well as taking other measures. While more benevolent flash mobs may be organized by college students, the flash mobs in Philadelphia which have turned to rioting are composed of mostly junior high and high school students. And Philadelphia is not alone as other major cities have experienced dangerous flash mobs as well.
While Philadelphia police and government officials have tried to put an end to the flash mobs, one wonders if a lack of after school activities could be in part responsible for the phenomenon. Many in the flash mobs have no plans to riot, but rather are attracted to being part of something which may be covered on television the next day. As some flash mobs may be composed of thousands of teenagers, police are monitoring activity on social networking sites and even monitoring traffic in subways which may indicate a mass migration of teenagers is underway.
As parents could be legally held responsible for their children’s behavior in addition to the children themselves, officials have asked parents to monitor their children’s usage of social networking sites and to check their children’s cell phones for text messages. Though given the sporadic nature of flash mobs, parents would almost have to check their childrens’ cell phones on a daily basis and even that may not be enough. Charges for some involved in the flash mobs have risen from misdemeanor to felony charges.
One wonders how effectively parents can monitor their children’s internet communications. The request by city officials has eery similarities to the Iranian government’s attempts to censure social networking sites. Though obviously the goals are different in two cases: the Iranian regime fears social instability which could oust them from power while officials in Philadelphia want to prevent dangerous flash mobs before they happen. So far, protesters and dissidents in Iran have been successful in circumventing their government’s censorship, and certainly social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook aren’t going away any time soon in the United States.
Police are studying how to best prevent flash riots from occurring and how to dissipate them quickly once they have begun. Though given the widespread adoption of social networking technology flash mobs may continue for years in one form or another.