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Expert: Social media exposure fueling vigilante justice

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

With anti-crime sentiment spread across social media, local communities are banding together to identify criminals. Often, suspects are caught, assaulted or even killed before police arrive or are even called.

Although it also often plays out in the streets, citizens taking the law into their own hands can start elsewhere and can be misguided by its origins, a concern for law enforcement.

Recently, members of a Facebook page focused on stolen vehicles posted a picture of a car with temporary tags. They described it as “suspicious” and possibly stolen. Deputy Chief Harold Medina, with the Albuquerque Police Department, said he recognized the vehicle immediately.

“I recognized the car as a relative’s of mine, that they had just purchased. And I was like ‘How could we just make those assumptions?’ ” he said. “That’s one of our concerns, is that a lot of times the public has to be careful because a lot of that information has to be vetted as being accurate or correct.”

Locally, Facebook pages like Albuquerque Stolen Vehicle Watch and Albuquerque Metro Crime Watch give residents a place to vent their frustrations about crime, notify others of perceived criminal activity and share news stories of crime in their area.

“A lot of these web pages post suspected individuals,” Medina said. “Sometimes there is no credence to them being criminals.”

On Albuquerque Metro Crime Watch, members have posted about gunfire, car crashes or police activity in specific areas. They rail against or for the criminal justice system and share photos or profiles of individuals with details of their alleged crimes.

Michael Pfeifer, a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said historically “sensational media coverage” in newspapers facilitated lynchings and vigilantism.

“In the contemporary context, social media without the filter and ethics of professional and modern journalism has effectively taken on this function,” he said.

Pfeifer said social media increases the likelihood of vigilante justice through the easy spreading of false rumors and the easy summoning of a group. It also has “strongly aided” perceptions that fuel vigilantism, whether real or imagined.

“Even if crime is not rising, perceptions that crime is rising, that criminals are becoming more brazen, that the state and law enforcement agencies are corrupt, distant, or ineffectual, will bring an increase,” he said. “The underlying issue here is also a distrust of the state’s ability to efficiently enact crime control and perform criminal justice.”

Pfeifer said the mainstream narrative in America had frowned upon vigilantes since the 1920s, but a recent glorification of self-defense and “growing cultural divides” have eroded that bad reputation for some.

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