MU Researcher Offers New Perspectives on Violent Flash Mobs

Jeff Sossamon
News Source: 
MU News Bureau

COLUMBIA, Mo. – For the past few years, flash mobs have been featured in viral videos as good-natured choreographed dancing or singing events. Recently in urban areas, several of these events have turned violent. J. Brian Houston, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and co-director of the Terrorism and Disaster Center at the University of Missouri, says understanding the origin of flash mobs could help combat their violent potential.

“Originally, flash mobs were thought of as a type of public performance art or ‘prankster action,’” Houston said. “When and where flash mobs were to occur was communicated to participants via email, texting and smart phones. However, other events involving large groups of ‘roving’ youth in Boston, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Kansas City have also been called “flash mobs” by the media and community leaders. These new roving youth flash mobs have sometimes turned violent or have been perceived to be potentially violent which led to our study.”

In 2011, several violent youth flash mobs occurred at the Country Club Plaza, an upscale outdoor shopping center in downtown Kansas City, Mo. The events culminated in August 2011, when three youths were injured by gun violence. The incidents led Houston and his team to conduct several focus groups with Kansas City youth to gain their perspectives on the definition of flash mobs, their motivation for participating in them, the causes and potential solutions, and the negative consequences of flash mobs.

Houston and his research consortium found that the following factors contribute to flash mob violence:

  • Youth boredom: Youth indicated that a variety of activities are missing from their inner city neighborhoods. Lack of transportation to “fun” or safe places and lack of community afterschool programs contribute to boredom.
  • Inner-city gangs and crime: Youth in the study indicated that violence from their communities can infiltrate other areas of the cities. This violence also can be facilitated by new mobile technologies.
  • Historic loitering and “cruising”: The tendency for youth to meet and hang out in groups is not new; however, social and mobile media are facilitators of the rapid ways in which these flash mobs organize and take place.

“It was interesting that when we asked participants to define what a flash mob was, they had many different definitions or explanations,” Houston said. “This suggests that organizations designing interventions to prevent violent flash mobs must first be sure that youth possess common definitions of the events so that public health campaigns can be better targeted to potentially violent youth. Officials also should examine the causes, such as boredom and historic inner-city loitering, and design programs that address the problems while developing ways to combat them.”

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