When hundreds of youth converged at the South Bay shopping center and on the Common last Sunday, shutting down businesses and causing general chaos, police officials pointed to social media, implying that it was used as a tool to coordinate and gather massive crowds.
They pointed again to social media after police say people from out of town went to the North End for the St. Anthony’s Feast last Saturday and shut down the event early because there were brawls and too many teens who were drunk.
“You can see this theme of a lot of young people with no supervision and in large crowds, and we have to come in and supervise with arrests,” Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox said at a recent press conference. “That’s not our role and job, but the reality is that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The rise of social media use among youth is well documented, but a causal relationship between social media use and violent in-person events is more difficult to quantify. So how does social media play a role in events that have led to violence?
Forms of technology have long been used to gather large groups of people. Before social media, people used text messaging to rally mobs of people, especially for political purposes, according to Dean Eckles, associate professor of marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.
“Twenty years ago, the terms ‘flash mob’ and ‘smart mob’ were a part of public vocabulary, and there was already some associated crime and moral panic with the idea,” Eckles said. “That was happening before social media.”
What has arrived with social media is the potential for some posts to go viral, which allows their visibility to grow exponentially, Eckles said.
Adam Wandt, an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who focuses in part on technology law, said while law enforcement should monitor social media to prevent violence, the first line of defense is social media companies, who should flag problematic posts.
“Social media is certainly a place for law enforcement to go and get information from,” he said. “You should not be surprised if you write something on social media and are held accountable for it.”
Still, Shiona DeCarvalho, associate vice president of club programming at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Boston, said the effects of social media should not always be viewed as bad for young people.
“Social media is a great way to get a message across quickly to lots of folks and to galvanize youth to want to be involved and want to be seen and heard and a part of something,” she said.
The content that gets the most engagement tends to be the type that sparks a reaction, according to DeCarvalho. That could lead young people to be interested in attending an event, or even going to film the event themselves so their own post can gain traction.
“But social media is being used as a bit of a scapegoat for this,” she said. “It can amplify things, but it’s not the root cause [of these events].”
It’s difficult to link a causal relationship between social media and violent activity, Eckles said, adding that it’s possible that if social media was unavailable, youth could coordinate events through a different platform.
Though social media could allow potentially violent posts or posts encouraging youth to turn out at an event to go viral, Eckles said, in the broader context, social media allows young people to connect in a way that supplements the limited time they spend with each other in-person.
A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that in the last decade, the time teenagers spend socializing with each other has declined. That was before the pandemic, which sent kids home for at least a year, with social media as their main avenue for social interaction. So it may even be good that social media can facilitate in-person socialization, said Eckles.
“We need to work to understand what young people are going through today, what challenges they face, and how we can support them,” said Michael Kozu, co-director of the community-based organization Project R.I.G.H.T. in Grove Hall.
DeCarvalho added the onus is on parents, youth workers, and other adults to create opportunities for young people to discover their identities and fulfill their need for community.
“These are still children who need us as adults,” DeCarvalho said.