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July 31, 2012, 2:03 p.m.
Audience & Social
twitter-riot-cc

By tweeting about a developing story, could you be inciting a riot?

And you thought Twitter suspending @GuyAdams was bad. Governments can do much worse.

You’re probably not going to like this, but we’re facing bigger Twitter problems than @GuyAdams having his account suspended.

For those who haven’t been among the outraged on Twitter: Guy Adams, a Los Angeles-based reporter for The Independent, tweeted up a storm of criticisms about NBC’s handling of the Olympics. One of those tweets included NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel’s work email address. Twitter suspended his account for allegedly violating its user policy. The Internet went bananas.

What’s making people so berzerk about all this is the idea that Twitter and a corporate partner — one that works in the news business, no less! — appear to have teamed up to silence a guy who said things those companies didn’t like. (Breaking: Adams apparently has his account back.)

In reporting on something through social media, your action might be seen as calling for that thing to happen.

But here’s a scarier thought: What if it were up to the government to choose what kind of Twitter speech is allowed? What if instead of account suspensions, Twitter users had to worry about being arrested for what they tweet?

That’s a question that Yale Law School lecturer Margot Kaminski has been thinking about a lot these days. The premise of her recent research is that as people increasingly use social media as a tool for community organizing, government will try to impose regulations.

Kaminski has delved specifically into “incitement to riot” statutes in the United States. These are the laws that add the “but” to that freedom-of-assembly bit in the First Amendment, and they vary in key ways from state to state. (How many people have to assemble for it to be considered a riot? What kind of activity constitutes a riot? What’s the difference between someone who’s acting violently, or just threatening violence? And what about intent? Etc., etc., etc.)

Here’s a hypothetical: Let’s say I take to Twitter, and tweet that everyone in Cambridge should meet at the Out of Town News stand and start moonwalking at noon. Harmless flash mob, right?

But what if instead I tweet that everyone should meet there for a looting spree? Am I inciting a riot? (For the record, I am decidedly pro-moonwalking and anti-looting.) Kaminski argues in her paper, “Incitement to Riot in the Age of Flash Mobs,” that “there is no real need to go after the speaker for a crime of ‘incitement to robbery’ or ‘incitement to riot,’ because the speaker’s involvement in the robbery could be punished through other means.”

A thornier question: What if I’m a reporter or some other passerby who tweets about a crowd that’s gathering at the newsstand, and my tweet notifies others who then turn up?

“If somebody tweets there’s a protest happening at XYZ location, there’s a possibility that that might be seen as incitement to riot,” Kaminski told me. “So the thing that might be harmful to journalists is in reporting on something through social media: Your action might be seen as calling for that thing to happen.”

This isn’t just an academic thought exercise. Last year, Cleveland’s city council passed ordinance to prohibit “the improper use of social media to induce persons to commit a criminal offense.” Mayor Frank Jackson vetoed the measure. But in December, the council adopted a revised version of the original ordinance, making it clear that “electronic media devices” can be considered criminal tools.

Kaminski says the Supreme Court has never addressed whether there should be a distinction between “direct and indirect advocacy of unlawful action.” The other thing to remember is that states define riots differently. Get the image of a torch-and-pitchfork-toting mob out of your mind: Only two states require at least seven people for a gathering to be a possible riot. Four states require only two people to gather for their assembly to be considered a possible riot. For most states, the minimum is three people.

Many states already criminalize incitement to riot, and plenty of them in ways that Kaminski says are overly broad, even unconstitutional. She calls these statutes fascinating because they implicate not one but two protected freedoms: speech and assembly. In the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case Brandenburg v. Ohio, justices unanimously ruled that the government may not punish speech unless it incites violent action. They drew a line between speech that advocated for violence versus speech that actually incited it. Traditionally, it was up to authorities — often in the midst of a crowd — to determine whether someone was inciting a riot.

“Now there’s a particular fear of social media,” Kaminski said. “I use Twitter as the example because of the fact that cops are afraid that it creates instantaneous reaction. Before, the call to gather would have occurred by some kind of telephone chain, passing out pamphlets or putting up posters. Brandenberg put up this idea that the harm has to be immediate before you can legitimately go after it. It really meant you’re watching the speaker give the speech, and you’re seeing how soon bad stuff is going to occur.”

In an age of virtual assembly, authorities are trying to figure out how to navigate incitement in a non-physical space. One high-profile example from last summer: When police in Britain threatened to bring charges against people for using Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger to incite widespread London riots.

“Twitter brings this immediacy question back into play again,” Kaminski said. “You can have 100,000 followers and send out a message, and have something occur in 20 minutes. There’s a lot of potential for ex post facto justification. The chance that you, with 100,000 followers, put out this message and something really bad happens? Well, you might put out 50 messages with nothing happen and one thing occurs and post-legislators are going to try to apply this to social media. The core of this is making this really clear how much of a high level of intent you have. You have to be able to show that the speaker on Twitter wanted the gathering to occur, wanted it to be large, wanted it to happen immediately, and wanted to frustrate police ability to control it.”

Image derived from photo by Dave Hogg and illustration by Matt Hamm used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 31, 2012, 2:03 p.m.
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