How police, experts say crowds used social media to coordinate looting in Chicago

WGN Investigates

CHICAGO  — It’s no secret social media plays a role in organizing demonstrations, but now police believe it is being used to coordinate looting throughout Chicago as well.  

Entire retail areas were hit in a matter of minutes as coordinated break-ins occurred throughout the city in the early hours of Monday morning. More than 100 people were arrested as looters attacked numerous businesses on the Mag Mile and Near North Side. 

Well before the images of widespread looting hit TV, police say social media was the tool used to get crowds organized. Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said Monday the looting was a coordinated attack planned on social media.

“CPD became aware of several social media posts encouraging looting downtown,” Brown said. “Once we got word of these social media posts, 400 officers were dispatched to our downtown area.”

Social media has been a tool for police for years, not just in Chicago but across the country. Facebook received about 50,000 requests for information from police departments starting in July of last year until December of 2019.

Sociology professor Christopher Schneider is the author of “Policing and Social Media:  Social Control in an Era of New Media.”

“I was quite interested in learning more about how the Chicago police discovered these posts online that indicated that there was going to be some kind of looting to direct them there, because we know that this has been a controversial subject in Chicago,” Schneider said.

The practice is so controversial that in 2018 the American Civil Liberties Union stepped in to request more information from Chicago police about what they were doing. The ACLU eventually called on the police department to end the use of “spying software” to monitor social media activity. 

Among their concerns is whether some tracking software that is being used had algorithms that could be racially biased.

“They have since suggested they are not really using those… they haven’t really confirmed what they are using now explicitly,” Schneider said.

Schneider says it’s not unusual for police departments to keep a tight guard on how they’re tracking criminal activity on social platforms, but it’s one tool of many.

“I think a question that Chicagoans and people are left wondering is, is ‘how did this happen before police could stop it?’ The short answer is there are so many avenues of dissemination, what criminals are trying to do is not be discovered,” Schneider said.

Chicago police said they couldn’t provide information of how many officers are assigned to monitoring social media by Monday evening. 

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