Is social media turning socially dangerous?

BART, San Francisco, protests
BART police officers push back a protester at the Civic Center station in San Francisco, Monday, Aug. 15, 2011. Cellphone service was operating as protesters gathered at a San Francisco subway station during rush-hour several days after transit officials shut wireless service to head off another demonstration.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Flash mobs have become a global phenomenon. After starting out as an oddity, they quickly turned into a tool for organizing people with a cause or for inciting chaos. CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports that some cities, like San Francisco, are cracking down.

The demonstrators who shut down part of San Francisco's subway during last night's rush hour were brought together with text messages and Internet posts.

They were protesting action taken last week when the rapid transit system blocked cell phone service in four stations. Cell service was turned off to hamper demonstrators' attempts to organize.

"Totalitarian states don't want people to communicate. And the United States is headed toward that kind of attitude, and we gotta stop it!" said protestor Sandy Sanders.

From Egypt to England, governments of every kind are facing the possibilities and perils that come with the growth of social networks and instant messaging.

San Francisco-Bay Area trains snarled by protest
SF subway cell shut down invites FCC probe
Anonymous hacks BART, who are the real victims?
Hackers protest SF transit's cell phone jamming

In Cairo, cell phones and the internet helped demonstrators link up to overthrow a dictator. In London, looters used text messages to identify new targets.

This summer in Philadelphia, gangs used text messaging to quickly organize into so called "flash mobs," that have preyed on downtown businesses.

"We're kind of scarred with the whole flash mob-the city and South Street as well," said Philadelphia bar manager Gart Buck.

Apparently out of nowhere, crowds suddenly appear and run wild. Social media seems to have become anti-social media.

In San Francisco, BART, the transit agency, said cell phones were turned off to keep protestors from putting passengers in danger.

"It'd be the equivalent of people to start protesting on an airplane while you're in flight," said Linton Johnson, chief spokesman for BART.

But critics say the cell phone shut down mirrors attempts in the Middle East to block social media.

"You can't use communication as a tool for social control at home while criticizing foreign governments for doing the same thing," said protester Elijah Sparrow.

This all may be part of our adjustment to new ways to communicate. After all, once even the printing press was considered dangerous.

  • John Blackstone
    John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.