Mob Rules
So-called flash mobs have wreaked havoc in urban areas. Are they a threat to the suburbs?
by Pete Croatto


The Internet constantly presents new ways to do old things, for better or for worse. Why communicate on a phone when you can send an e-mail or an instant message? Wasting time through daydreaming and coffee breaks is so 2001 now that Facebook and Twitter have presented a brave new world of procrastination.


Group activities have also taken on a new dimension, thanks to the Web. Example: So-called flash mobs—groups of people who agree to meet at a designated spot to perform a choreographed event before dispersing—are usually organized via social media or text messages.


Sometimes the events are goofy, such as busting out yoga poses, mass planking or staging an oversized pillow fight. Recently, however, flash mobs have developed a more sinister reputation. Nationwide there have been incidents of groups, usually young people, assembling to rob stores and in general act like youth run wild. Ten percent of multiple offender crimes over the past 12 months involved flash-mob tactics, according to a July 2011 National Retail Federation poll of more than 100 senior retail executives.  


The Philadelphia area in particular has been plagued by these ugly incidents. Responding to flash-mob activity, Mayor Michael Nutter signed an executive order in August to temporarily reduce the curfew to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays for anyone under age 18 in “targeted enforcement districts” in Center City and University City.


Preteens to young adults are “known for [their] impulsivity,” says Peter D. Ganime, M.D., who is board certified in adolescent and child psychiatry. “These individuals are not fully mature and they act without thinking. Consequently, [their behavior] doesn't mean as much to them, and that’s a big problem. … Young people, if they're in a group, may be inclined to do bad things because they reinforce each other.”


Aside from taking action, Mayor Nutter issued harsh rhetoric, telling black teenagers involved in mob attacks that they had “damaged your own race” and warning parents “to get hold of your kids before we have to.” It turns out the mayor’s blunt advice to adults can stop flash mobs from becoming a troubling suburban trend.


Historic Ties

“Mobs have shaped and determined the shape of history since the beginning of recorded time,” says Ganime, who is affiliated with Montgomery Hospital Medical Center. Flash mobs, he adds, are simply “mobs on steroids.” So, in a way, this is nothing new—just another example of evolution.


“The only difference is that people are using the social media tools to organize it,” says Neal Wiser, a Philadelphia-based digital strategist and proprietor of Neal Wiser Consulting. What flash mobs represent, he says, is the ever-changing nature of the Internet. “The good things these tools bring society significantly outweigh their potential for abuses. With anything anywhere, people will try to abuse tools and systems for their own gain.”


Twitter and Facebook are how most flash mobs organize, sources suggest, but the challenge is that destruction-minded participants may use code words or slang to establish locations and other details. The good news is that there are ways to monitor conversations online, including “sentiment analysis,” one tool offered by several services that try to monitor conversations online, such as blog posts and status updates. “Most of these services operate by scouring the Internet for keywords or phrases,” Wiser says. “The ‘sentiment’ is usually measured on a scale” that ranges from “very positive” to “very negative.”


The bad news is that commercial vendors cannot track direct messages or instant messages—though federal agencies’ capabilities, Wiser adds, are a different story. He describes sentiment analysis as currently being “highly error prone.” Slang can change every few days, sometimes deliberately, and can differ from neighborhood to neighborhood, so what means one thing in West Philadelphia could mean something entirely different in Plymouth Meeting or Coatesville.


“It takes time to develop algorithms that can parse things like context,” Wiser says. “For example, saying someone ‘killed it’ could mean anything from killing an insect to a band performing an amazing concert.” Police departments may designate employees to monitor sites, but that requires staff resources and “knowledge of the terms to look for,” says Nancy Kolb, senior program manager at the International Association of Chiefs of Police in Alexandria, Va.


“It’s about trying to be prepared for it,” she adds. “Police agencies do training around special events, when they know there’ll be a large group gathering and they try to apply those principles to flash mobs. The problem is staffing. If you know you’re going to have an event where 1,000 people will be in a park, you can have enough law enforcement there to make sure people will be safe.”


Once a violence-minded mob attacks a business, according to security expert Ira S. Somerson of Loss Management Consultants Inc. in Upper Gwynedd, “it’s damn near impossible to stop.” Such an assembly cares only about not getting caught or arrested. Another concern is that flash mobs are not neatly categorized. “It’s on a continuum,” Kolb explains. “It’s hard to define and put them in a box: This would be a flash mob, and this would be a riot, and this would be X, Y, Z. They’re kind of fuzzy definitions.”


What signifies a flash mob will surely get fuzzier as the Internet continues to evolve. Sure, Facebook and Twitter are ubiquitous, but what about Foursquare or Diaspora, the decentralized, peer-to-peer social network? The Internet of 2015, according to Wiser, will be “vastly different, and in many ways unrecognizable” from what we use today.


In the Loop

Deterring flash mobs relies less on technological savvy and more on common sense and old-fashioned values.


On the retail side, Somerson says a large part of prevention lies in preparation, such as training a staff to notice anything unusual—15 teenage boys in the furs section, for example—and consulting with relevant security personnel beforehand to learn when and how to call for help. Police departments, according to Kolb, are increasingly establishing an online presence to complement traditional policing methods. It’s an ideal way to share information about laws and regulations with residents, who can then ask questions and share their thoughts.


Whether online or on the town, “the most important thing you can do as a parent or member of the community is to be engaged,” Wiser says. “Talk to people, communicate, be a part of their lives. You’ll not only hear things, but people will tell you things.”


Should harmful flash mobs become a local issue, public leaders would benefit following the example set by Mayor Nutter and the city’s department. “They haven’t tolerated this behavior, but they haven’t overreacted to it,” says Ganime, adding that such a response has prevented flash mobs from becoming glamorized. Parents, he says, have been held accountable for their children’s actions. Getting involved before the authorities does help immeasurably.


“That’s the most important thing is just to be there, to be a parent,” says Wiser, father of a 9-year-old daughter. “Have those lines of communication. Aside from the fact that kids want them, you need to be part of their lives and in the loop.”


That advice should hold even as flash mobs fade and new threats arise. “I’m 70 years old,” Ganime says, “and I’ve lived long enough to know that it will pass.”


Pete Croatto is a freelance writer based in Newtown.