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Police Monitoring Of Social Media Sparks Concerns In Black And Brown Communities


In a summer that's brought both peaceful and violent protests, Chicago is stepping up its monitoring of social media. It's part of a new strategy Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced last week to combat looting in her city.


LORI LIGHTFOOT: Effective immediately the Chicago Police Department has created the social media task force, a specialized 20-person unit within the Crime Prevention and Information Center focused on around-the-clock review of open source social media activity.

CORNISH: The Chicago PD, of course, is not alone in this. Federal agents have also been combing through Facebook and Instagram posts to gather intelligence on Black Lives Matter protesters. Well, Desmond Patton of Columbia University is one of many voices sounding the alarm. He warns that social media monitoring, if not done right, will inevitably become the new stop-and-frisk.

DESMOND PATTON: What this means is that we are expanding surveillance. We are creating a world where the things that we say and do online are hyper-surveilled. They're hyper-surveilled with vulnerable communities, in particular Black and Latinx communities. And we're opening up a window of gross misinterpretation that can lead to mass incarceration.

CORNISH: Desmond Patton is founding director of the SAFE Lab at Columbia. Its work is focused on how young people of color navigate violence on and offline. He spent hours talking with youth and poring over their social media posts.

PATTON: We have lots of research most recently that tells us that oftentimes when artificial intelligence is used to monitor or surveil Black speech on, say, Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, it may see text and automatically assume that it is aggressive based on the speech in words that might be surrounding it. What we have seen in my lab is that young people, particularly young people in Chicago, love to post lyrics, love to post music that they're listening to. That song lyric could be associated with a potential act, or it could be just in the moment expression. But without having inclusive insights about what's being said, you could completely miss the interpretation and get it wrong. And the issue is that we're getting it wrong with vulnerable populations or not deploying these tools in white communities at all.

CORNISH: So how do you get from there to could this end up the next stop-and-frisk?

PATTON: So what I've seen in my research is that oftentimes social media is used as negative character testimony. And so we're looking at large swaths of data. And police officers and attorneys and judges may be reviewing these posts without any context about what's actually being said. Discerning between an aggressive post and a post that's about trauma or loss is extremely hard to do. But what we also are seeing is that there is no clear evaluation of whether or not we have the correct interpretation. And so these posts are then used as evidence without having any input on whether or not we are actually seeing what we think we see. And this is the real issue here.

CORNISH: What does this mean for posts that are really just about organization, people saying, look, we're going to meet at this time and this place? Because Mayor Lightfoot cited this specifically, the idea that social media is being used to organize large groups of people. Is your concern here that this isn't just about those organizing posts, that it could go beyond that?

PATTON: Well, it never is. Because at first, we have to ask ourselves who are we surveilling - right? And so I want to be really clear. I think that this is a really complex problem. What I know is that on one end, people can get hurt based on what they say online. We know that physical altercations happening, rebellion can take place, fights can take place. And at the same time, those tools that we can use to actually help people can also be used to send them to prison when we don't know exactly what's being said.

And so I think that we oftentimes jump to quick solutions, and we don't bring in the necessary voices that need to be heard to make really good decisions. And so it's not the case that social media doesn't give us important insights. What I'm hoping is that we have a very inclusive task force that can help us discern between when social media is appropriate and when we should not use it because it's more harmful than good.

CORNISH: Desmond Patton is an associate professor at Columbia University School of Social Work. Thank you for talking with us.

PATTON: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.