You can expect some… extracurricular activity when you’re a teacher in Philly. I’ve broken up my fair share of fights’ they usually end with a confused teenager saying that they don’t even know why they started throwing punches to begin with. But a few weeks back, I had to break up a fight between two adults outside of my school. I’ll spare the more painful details, but the thing that stuck out to me most was the cause of the fight—or at least what I could suss out in the height of combat.
“I saw what you said on Insta!”
If you ask a friend who is a member of a climate or culture staff at a school in Philadelphia, they’ll tell you that maybe 75 percent of their work entails divining the provenance of various beefs that started on social media.
I thought about that, over and over, for weeks. Instagram, the impetus for a fight between two adults, featuring a shiv. As a teacher, it’s a very common thing to hear. If you ask a friend who is a member of a climate or culture staff at a school in Philadelphia, they’ll tell you that maybe 75 percent of their work entails divining the provenance of various beefs that started on social media or figuring out which kid started an anonymous account to pick on others.
But it’s not the kids who are on my mind; there’s a thousand think pieces about the role of social media in school bullying. What’s on my mind is the frivolity of two adults throwing hands over Instagram posts, and the terrible regularity with which such posts are becoming one of the main drivers of deadly violence in Philly and other big cities.
Philadelphia ended 2021 with 562 homicides, an almost 9 percent increase over 2020. There are plenty of reasons for this phenomenon, many stemming from the pandemic. The drug trade has picked up in recent years, and, at least early in the pandemic, lockdown boredom and cabin fever were regularly discussed as reasons for increased gang involvement and, subsequently, violence.
But precious little has been discussed about the role of social media in violence, and less still about the role that social media giants should be serving to help avert such violence, or their culpability when such violence occurs.
There is, for example, the nightmarish shooting deaths of Shahjahan McCaskill and Jarell Jackson, two promising young men who were allegedly killed as part of a social media feud they had absolutely nothing to do with. There is the shooting death of Samir Jefferson, 14, a Thomas Edison High student shot 18 times, possibly for social media infighting. There are countless other needless deaths in Philly and in other cities instigated by social media clashes.
It’s not just local beefs unfolding into homicides on sites like Facebook and Instagram. It is larger-scale violence, up to and including attempted genocide, as evidenced Facebook being used as a clearinghouse for calls to violence in the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. Facebook is currently contending with a $150 billion lawsuit on behalf of Rohingya refugees, who claim that the social media titan facilitated the violence.
Social media platforms need substantially more involved moderators and AI programs that aren’t just hunting for nascent terrorists and school shooters, but attempting to locate and report local violence.
The degree to which social media entities are used as launchpads for shootings in the city is a moral issue that far outweighs whether Uncle Dave’s favorite racist meme group has been removed by censors. It is far more important than the ever-present fear of right-wing insurrection being fomented one Facebook. It is not a question of philosophy, or the role of the internet in public discourse. It is a question of life and death.
What are these sites doing about the fact that they host an untold number of murder plots? Is anything being done to get ahead of deadly beefs? Why is it that they seem to care so little about the real world attacks plotted daily on their site if the crimes are committed against Black and Brown people?
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In an age when social media companies are being dragged to Congress and made to answer to unverified claims of “shadowbanning,” it’s time to begin to ask serious questions about the complicity of Facebook and Twitter in the stunning increase in violence, which is often established, planned and carried out on their services. While I’m not certain what a future in which social media companies are held to account for violence organized on their properties looks like, I know what it can’t look like: the current legal situation enjoyed by social media companies in America.
Thanks to Section 230 of the now-controversial Communications Decency Act, social media companies are not allowed to be sued for information posted on their websites, as they legally do not act as “publishers” of the information. This is simultaneously an understandable and maddening state of affairs; social media companies would be unsustainable with such broad protections, but as we wend our way into a hyperconnected century in which violence is regularly plotted online, it is clear that protections this broad won’t be operable.
A future where social media titans are held accountable for violence plotted on their clients and platforms is certainly possible and attainable. But there are substantial roadblocks, some legal and some practical—these organizations have more money than God, after all, and are famously unafraid to throw cash at defeating even the meagerest plans for oversight.
Whatever there is now is not working. There is functionally, no oversight or moderation on major social media clients, beyond voluntary reporting and filters that try—and often fail—to find out extremist behavior.
Social media platforms need substantially more involved moderators and AI programs that aren’t just hunting for for nascent terrorists and school shooters, but attempting to locate and report local violence. The linear increase in homicides and shootings in Philly and cities like it can be tracked, at least in part, to the stunning efficacy with which violent thought can be fostered and subsequent violence can be planned.
The soul-crushing aspect of the historical levels of violence in this city isn’t just the shooting itself. It’s the frivolity of it, and the purposelessness of the more than 500 homicides.
There are certainly some prospects for dealing with this issue. While there is a lot to be said about the efficacy of Philadelphia police—and city police in general—in crime-solving and prevention, local cops could play a substantial role in helping prevent crime that is planned and fomented on social media. Most police departments already use social media scanning in order to solve crimes; according to a study by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Urban Institute, 70 percent of police departments use social media
Cops have even gone under cover on social media, using fake profiles to get in contact with suspects, a practice that Facebook, at very least, strongly opposes. But while scouring social media has proven an effective tool for finding suspects, using it to stop crime before it starts is another matter.
In New York City, the Citizens Crime Commission created E-Responder, a program that uses “violence interrupters” to scour social media for likely threats and diffuse them with real-life outreach. According to the New York Times, interrupters spend two hours a day looking through social media accounts of people 16 to 25 for threats of violence, such as photos with weapons, targeted bullying, expressions of anger or grief. When they find something, they reach out to the young person.
During a pilot program that started in 2016, the Citizen Crime Commission says 154 medium to high-risk online threats were diffused, a 97 percent success rate.
The soul-crushing aspect of the historical levels of violence in this city isn’t just the shooting itself. It’s the frivolity of it, and the purposelessness of the more than 500 homicides. The added dimension of social media-borne violence brings another level of pathetic obsequiousness to what feels more and more every year like a slow-burning, homegrown genocide.
Solving this problem will not be as simple as introducing greater local moderation and legal consequences to social media corporations, but it won’t be solved without such measures. The future of crime has arrived, and it is time for our policing methods to adjust.
Quinn O’Callaghan is a teacher and writer in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @gallandguile.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
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