After a week of mass protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody, many law enforcement agencies invited members of the public to submit footage of illegal activity through evidence-gathering websites and apps.
The agencies got more than they bargained for.
Activists who see these portals as “snitch” tools responded to the calls by uploading videos depicting police violence against demonstrators, as well as memes and videos of Korean pop stars.
It’s part of a broader battle in the online information ecosystem that has seen a white nationalist group pose as antifa to call for violence and an anti-racist campaign to flood the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag with K-pop fan videos.
Some of the websites and apps that collect crime tips have crashed or been removed from the web, although police departments either would not confirm a connection to activists’ efforts or said the tools were taken down for other reasons.
The police department in Grand Rapids, Michigan, launched an “evidence submission portal” Sunday after a night of protests, calling for “information about criminal activity, particularly suspects’ identities.” People spammed the portal with videos of police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters, along with videos of K-pop and pictures and videos of pigs and bacon.
On Tuesday, the Grand Rapids Police Department announced on Twitter that it was closing the portal and instead urged the public to call a phone line.
Sgt. Dan Adams, a spokesman for the department, said that the takedown had “nothing to do with ‘spamming’ or other attempts at flooding the portal.” It was removed, he said, because the police department received more than 20,000 tips and investigators had “enough information to start working on warrant requests and arrests.”
On Saturday, the Dallas Police Department used a tweet to call people to send videos anonymously through its iWatch app. Shortly after the app launched, the agency tweeted that it was down because of “technical difficulties,” which protesters credited to their efforts to flood it with K-pop videos.
The police department said in a statement Monday that the cause of the “temporary interruption in service” was “still being determined” and that the app had been restored.
On Monday, the FBI launched its own portal calling for information on “individuals inciting violence” during demonstrations. Shortly after, dozens of people started posting screenshots of their submissions, including footage of police shooting rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters, and obscene material.
Rajat Suresh, a comedy writer and performer, who has attended what he described as mostly peaceful protests in Brooklyn, submitted a picture of the Three Stooges from the movie “Spook Louder,” along with a message that he “saw these guys on the street during a protest. They seemed very violent.”
He said that he did it because he was mad about seeing multiple levels of law enforcement clash with protesters. “Maybe I live in a bubble, but it feels funny to think that the police are putting out forms for people to help them when they have been literally murdering people in the streets,” he added.
A spokesperson for the FBI said in an emailed statement: “We will not address specific measures we may employ to combat intrusions, but we continue to process all incoming digital media tips and have significant safeguards in place to address any potential deliberate attacks.”
Safiya Noble, an associate professor in the departments of information studies and African American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that these efforts show a “lot more savvy among organizers responding to state violence” about the technologies used to surveil movements for social justice.
“The use of everyday, mundane technologies like tip reporting websites for reporting if you see someone doing something wrong is how repressive social control gets normalized,” she said.”It normalizes fascism, state control and undermines democratic rights to free speech and protests.”