In times of trouble, you can count on the Internet to make it worse.
As riots tore through parts of Baltimore in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Twitter users took to the service to urge calm and pray people stayed safe. However, one group tried to use the service to amp up the outrage and urge people to steal and destroy.
Using the hashtag #baltimorelootcrew, people began posting images of destroyed restaurants, shoes they said were stolen, and prescription pills they said had grabbed. A group of masked young Black men holding bats and chains showed off seemingly stolen laptops and sneakers with the caption “li jo n da crew wid that newnew loot #BaltimoreLootCrew”
Let us take a moment here to acknowledge that even while there are horrible events taking place, a certain segment of society has always enjoyed trying to make it worse. Think of prank calls while breaking news is taking place. No matter what is happening, there is someone bored looking to make themselves and their friends laugh by humiliating someone.
Last week was Baltimore’s turn. The pictures and tweets were put together by a group of trolls who, essentially thought it would be funny to portray a group of loosely organized semi-literate Black thugs who went out and stole sneakers while the city convulsed. They gathered on messageboards with names like 8chan that are dedicated to discussing video games and Japanese anime. As the journalist Eoghan mac Suibhne wrote on Medium.com many if not all of the images posted with #BaltimoreLootCrew were not not pictures from the riot, they were from different parts of the world.
A picture of a bunch of cosmetics spilled on the floor had the caption “Got back from the protests, and I hauled it in 2nite! Wont need 2 buy makeup for 2yrs, at least! #BaltimoreLootCrew.” Suibhne found that the picture had been online for at least two years. A destroyed KFC with the caption “me n da niggas just cleard out da kfc #BaltimoreLootCrew free wings 2 night.” That picture, according to Suibhne, was taken in Pakistan in 2012. As for “li jo n da crew,” they were actually British and the picture was taken overseas.
Articles on Gawker and Motherboard showed that a small group of racists from the message board 8chan.com had been behind most of the #BaltimoreLootCrew messages. During Hurricane Sandy, the similar hashtag #SandyLootCrew made the rounds and is believed to be the work of the same individuals. Many people who responded did so in good faith and said they were going to report the posting and images to the police while several news organizations took them at face value and wrote about them. An article on the National Review web site entitled, “What Are Baltimore’s Rioters Trying to Communicate?” used the hashtag to note, “Under the hashtag “#BaltimoreLootCrew,” rioters have been posting photographs of their prizes. At least one user – who yesterday posted a picture of four new iPhone 6s – has suspended his account.”
This is not to say there wasn’t damage and looting during the riots. There was plenty across several parts of Baltimore including Fells Point. What is distressing is the ease with which people believe this sort of thing happens. Baltimore is better than that. One example is the homegrown #Onebaltimore, which is been listed on businesses, church, and school signs throughout the city. At a rally on Sunday at City Hall hundreds of people gathered under that banner to sing, chant, dance, and rally peacefully.
Kamau High is a journalist living in Baltimore. He has written for publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Billboard and The Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at email@example.com.