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Groups Worry About Impact Of Police Moves To Block Social Media

When should police be able to deactivate your social media account?

The question is becoming more urgent, as people use real-time connections in the middle of critical incidents involving law enforcement.

In the case of Korryn Gaines in Baltimore County, Md., earlier this month, police said that a suspect actively using a social media connection makes a standoff worse.

Gaines posted videos to Instagram of the unfolding standoff with police, who were outside her apartment trying to get her to surrender. After an hours-long standoff, Gaines was shot and killed by Baltimore County police.

Police said her social media activity was distracting her from negotiations, and some of her online followers were telling her not to give up. The police got Instagram's parent company, Facebook, to temporarily suspend her account.

But activists say this threatens to censor a crucial electronic witness of encounters with police.

'Fueled by video evidence'

Sometimes, says police tactics expert Sid Heal, the person is looking for an audience. Heal says outside communications can complicate a standoff, a problem that was easier to fix in the old days.

"Usually, we would surround the house and then call the guy on his own phone, say 'C'mon on out,' " Heal says. "And that prevented him from talking to anybody else as long as we just kept the line open. And if it got really bad we just literally cut the wire at the house."

These days, police can use a special Web page provided by the social media company where they can make an emergency request to take down somebody's account. For cops, this is no different than the old practice of cutting a phone line. But to Rashad Robinson, it is different. He runs Color of Change, an online racial justice organization. He says live social media are much more than just a line of communication.

"As the movement around police accountability has grown, it's been fueled by video evidence, the type of video that gives us a real insight into what's happening and creates the narrative, builds the narrative, for people to understand," he says.

Robinson says imagine if police in Minnesota had blocked the Facebook Live video of the aftermath of the police shooting of Philando Castile earlier this summer. There wouldn't have been nearly the same kind of public reaction. And in fact, that video did disappear for a while; Facebook blamed a technical glitch.

(Facebook pays NPR and other news organizations to produce live videos for its site.)

Robinson says tech companies need to establish clear principles for when and how they let police take people offline.

"Facebook and these other platforms have to decide what they're going to be. Are they the phone company or are they a news agency?" he says. "They can't sort of pick and choose depending on sort of the time of day."

His group and a long list of others have sent Facebook a letter demanding an explanation of the Gaines social media account takedown and clearer rules for the future.

Facebook says it does have clear rules: It responds to emergency requests from police when there's a risk of death or serious injury or imminent harm to a child. But the company won't discuss specific cases, and activists say it's leaving itself a lot of gray area where it can judge cases as it sees fit.

Meanwhile, live social media — especially video — just keeps getting more important to civic life. Kate Klonick studies this at Yale Law School.

"What's really interesting I guess about the live video feed is how quickly people are going to feel entitled to it and like it's part of their civic rights," Klonick says.

But social media is not a legally defined right — at least, not yet.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.