Groups Worry About Impact Of Police Moves To Block Social Media : All Tech Considered As police find themselves in encounters that are posted live — including video — they sometimes want to pull the social media plug. Activists say this threatens to censor an electronic witness.
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Groups Worry About Impact Of Police Moves To Block Social Media

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Groups Worry About Impact Of Police Moves To Block Social Media

Groups Worry About Impact Of Police Moves To Block Social Media

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It's become a real question, now that people often use real-time connections like Facebook live to video a video, to record and stream standoffs with law enforcement, when and whether should police be able to pull the plug on your social media. NPR's Martin Kaste has been looking into it.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: People are talking about this right now because of the case of a woman named Korryn Gaines who was shot and killed earlier this month by police in Baltimore County, Maryland. Before she was shot, there was a standoff, with the cops outside her apartment trying to get her to surrender. And during those hours, she was online. This is one of the videos that she posted on Instagram where she's talking about the standoff with her 5-year-old son.


KORRYN GAINES: What's happening right now? Who's outside?


GAINES: What are they trying to do?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: They trying to kill us.

KASTE: What's got people's attention here is the fact that, during the standoff, the police got Instagram's parent company, Facebook, to suspend her account. They say they did this because her social media connection was making the standoff worse. It was distracting her from negotiations, and some of her online followers were telling her not to give up.

SID HEAL: In some cases, the person is looking for an audience.

KASTE: Police tactics experts Side Heal says outside communications can complicate a standoff, a problem that was easier to fix in the old days.

HEAL: Usually, we would surround the house and then call the guy on his own phone, say come on out. 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.

KASTE: These days, the 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. And he says live social media are much more than just a line of communication.

RASHAD ROBINSON: 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 and rebuilds the narrative for people to understand.

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

ROBINSON: 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? And they can't sort of pick and choose depending on sort of the time of day.

KASTE: His group and a long list of others have sent Facebook a letter demanding an explanation of the Korryn Gaines takedown and clear rules for the future. Facebook says it does have clear rules. It responds to emergency requests from the 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.

KATE KLONICK: 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.

KASTE: But, of course, social media is not a legally defined right - at least not yet. Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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