PITTSBURGH - Mall owners are turning to social media to get in front of trouble before it starts, reasoning that if Twitter can be used to start a mall brawl, it can prevent one as well.
Security operations at many large shopping centers include some kind of social media tracking, in which web-crawling software alerts guards to posts about fights, protests, or other threats to the property.
Though not always effective at preventing melees such as one at Monroeville Mall near Pittsburgh on Friday, social media has given malls a leg up in the cat-and-mouse game with troublemakers, said David Levenberg, president of Center Security Services, a mall security consultant in Boca Raton, Fla.
"It's almost like a ticker tape that runs across the screen that the security folks monitor," Levenberg said. "It's not always foolproof, but it has certainly proven to be effective when there's a lot of chatter about a mall or a particular event at a mall."
Police are investigating what caused a chaotic scene at Monroeville Mall, in which a 1,000-teenager mob organized through social media turned violent. Controlling mobs can be extraordinarily difficult, but social media can have a critical role in preparing or preventing them, Levenberg said.
Mall owners have used social media to anticipate protests, such as those that occurred this month when a New York grand jury cleared a white police officer in the death of an unarmed black man. They have used it to prevent flash mobs and fights such as in Monroeville.
In some cases, mall owners alerted police on noticing threatening posts, then police officers warned the individuals of the consequences through social media. Malls are private property, and the individuals will be subject to arrest, so a reminder from the police can be enough to prevent problems, Levenberg said.
Stacey Keating, spokeswoman for CBL & Associates Inc., owners of the Monroeville and Westmoreland Malls, declined to comment, saying her group did not wish to disclose security practices.
Using social media to make security decisions can be difficult because the popularity of platforms changes, said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers.
"The problem is, the technology changes so fast," Kavanagh said. "They're using Facebook once, then they may be using something else. As much as you work to try to prevent it, there are guys creating new sites."
The Galleria at Pittsburgh Mills put a few more police officers and security guards in the mall Saturday as a precaution after the Monroeville incident, general manager Jerry Crites said.
Pittsburgh Mills keeps an eye on social media posts that mention the mall, but the scrutiny has not been needed to head off a fight, Crites said.
Police are based at the mall, and that presence - combined with keeping good relationships with teen customers - has been enough to keep shoppers safe, he said.
"Normally, if it's happening locally, you don't need social media," Crites said. "We just talk to the kids. It's the original social media, correct?"