Chicago police monitor social media as crime-fighting strategy; sociologist, ACLU urge caution

Some Chicago looting appeared to have stemmed from social media post

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ByLeah Hope via WLS logo
Thursday, August 13, 2020
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As Chicago police monitor social media as a crime-fighting strategy, some are concerned about the ethics surrounding their approach.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As Chicago police include social media as evidence in criminal cases more frequently, some question the ethics of monitoring the platforms.

Suspected looters appeared to have used social media to organize their actions earlier this week.

Much of it occurred in Alderman Brendan Reilly's ward, the 42nd.

"In 2020, social media has literally been weaponized against the city and our business owners," Reilly said Monday. "We need to not be a step behind on the social media intelligence game. We need to get ahead of it and make some important investments now."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois is suing the city to get more information about the Chicago Police Department's social media surveillance practices.

CPD said it monitors social media activity as a crime-fighting strategy, by reviewing publicly available and open-source social media.

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"I do think social media can help us reduce violence, can be a tool, but (we) must have some non-negotiables, some guidelines, some ethical guidelines," Columbia University Professor Desmond Patton said.

Patton has studied social media surveillance in Chicago for years, including his time earning a doctorate at the University of Chicago.

"If we don't understand how young people use social media and the language that they use, how they use emojis and hashtags and song lyrics, we can grossly misinterpret a post," he said.

Patton urges a diverse and inclusive discussion that includes young people to understand social media use before there's surveillance.

"If you are only focused on negative communication, you are too late," Patton said.

Patton finds observing social media to understand young people's concerns can help channel resources and support and ultimately prevent crime.