Philly, Don't Blame Facebook for Missing the Snowball Fight Invite

I understand you're upset, Philadelphia.  Plans for a "flash mob" snowball fight last week got out of control.  Scores of teenagers stormed a local mall and nearby streets vandalizing stores and beating the hell out of each other.  It's embarrassing for you, especially because it's happened before.  It must be frustrating too because you identified the problems that can occur when large crowds gather at the Gallery at Market East. And then, just several days after your city officials and businesses meet to discuss those problems, this happens.  Sure, you arrested 16 of the students responsible, but the damage is done, hundreds of dollars worth.  Someone needs to pay.

You're not alone in feeling this way.  In fact, similar mobs have been causing damage for years now.  There's that public garden in England that a 350-person water-fight destroyed.  There's that party in Spain a girl hosted to get back at her soon-to-be-divorced parents.  She advertised it on Facebook and 400 teens showed up causing $8.7 million in damage to her mansion home.  Her parents are surely blaming social media so I can understand why you may want to as well.

But you need to breathe.  Take a step back and look at the situation a bit more rationally.  It's not even certain that the most recent mob used Facebook or Twitter as you claim.  Still, given the ease of coordinating such events through the service, it is likely that word of the recent snowball fight spread through Facebook.  I get it.  I understand why you want to lash out at Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk.  But do you really think Facebook should be responsible for what 150 of your teenage residents did?

Members of your City Council do.  Here is what your own Frank DiCicco and James F. Kenney said about those in the mob and the way they gathered: "While they certainly owe this city an apology and deserve to be punished under the fullest extent of the law, we believe that social media outlets should also bear some of the blame."  Now these Councilmen are considering a lawsuit not only against Facebook, but against Twitter and MySpace too.

You're smarter than that, Philadelphia.  Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exists specifically to protect websites like those you're targeting.  That law provides immunity to websites against the content third-parties post.  Courts have applied this immunity to bar not only defamation and speech-based claims — like the planning of illegal activity — but those of invasion of privacy and misappropriation.  Section 230 recently protected MySpace from being responsible for facilitating the meeting of a sexual predator and his 14-year-old victim.

Holding Facebook responsible for the actions of its users isn't the way to go.  Councilman Kenney probably already knows this.  He said that if teens are "using those sites to conduct this thuggery, than I want to find out if it's true, and I want to get the appropriate legal action to get them to warn us."

A warning.  Now this sounds a little more reasonable.  Facebook wouldn't be responsible for what its users do, but only for alerting authorities before they do it.  It's not very feasible though; how exactly would Facebook monitor millions of accounts for discussion of illegal activity?  What exactly would it look for?  Let's remember that discussing illegal activity or even advocating it is protected speech.  It's not likely Facebook could make that distinction on such a large scale, nor should that be its responsibility.  Not to mention, there are serious privacy concerns involved in reporting private information. Facebook's current policy of reporting information when it has a good faith belief that doing so will prevent illegal activity or imminent bodily harm is adequate.

What may not be adequate, Philadelphia, is the effort of your police in monitoring this activity on its own.  Law officials across the country are embracing social media as a means to prevent the type of crimes you just experienced and those more severe. Massachusetts authorities caught a child-rape suspect after finding his location through Facebook.  Police in Suffolk, Va., identified suspects in a street fight when videos of the incident were posted on YouTube.  These type of efforts could have sniffed out a Facebook-planned melee before it even started.   You and your police department have your own Facebook pages.  Use them.

While you're at it, reevaluate the situation.  It's the dead of winter and everyone's heated.  Let's just call all this lawsuit talk an overreaction.  As Kenney justifiably said, "I think that the citizens of this city have the right to shop, work, use public transportation and not be pummeled to the ground."  Absolutely.  But take that "hardline" you are now threatening with the 16 kids arrested and not with the websites they use.

(Justin Silverman is a CMLP Legal Intern and a third-year evening student at Suffolk University Law School. Justin founded the law school's Suffolk Media Law student group and its blog in 2009.)  

Photo "Snowball" courtesy of Flickr user kamshots, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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