San Jose mayor wants tech giants to moderate sideshow content
San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata and Mayor Matt Mahan speak at a news conference on using social media to stop sideshows on Aug. 31, 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan is asking social media companies for help in solving the city’s growing sideshow struggle.

    Mahan wants big name platforms such as Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok to temporarily suspend accounts that post about local sideshow activities. He said at a news conference today that the companies are willing to meet to discuss if this is possible.

    Sideshows are a Bay Area phenomenon born in the 1980s where drivers gather in vacant lots or public intersections to show off cars and perform stunts like doughnuts.

    Sideshows have grown in recent years from a few dozen cars to hundreds. San Jose Police Chief Anthony Mata said it’s become infinitely more dangerous and popular due to social media.

    “Before social media they were probably using flyers, and obviously (social media) is an easier way to communicate,” Mata told San José Spotlight. “It invites hundreds of people right to these types of events.”

    San Jose made watching sideshows illegal in 2019 and outlawed their promotion two years later—but it hasn’t quite curbed the problem. In recent years, spectators have been injured and killed, police have recovered drugs and illegal firearms from these gatherings and a responding police helicopter was met with gunfire, according to Mahan’s office.

    Mahan said for these reasons, social media platforms need to be part of the solution. Sideshow promoters and enthusiasts often turn to social media not only to market their events, he said, but also gain massive followings from their posts—the more outrageous, the more followers they attract.

    “Large platforms—which by the way are some of the most profitable companies in the world—certainly have a responsibility for helping us have a safe community,” Mahan said. “And certainly ensure that the behavior on their platforms are not running counter to our laws and undermining our ability to enforce the laws.”

    Mahan’s proposal includes banning accounts that post sideshows for 30 days after their first offense. Repeat offenders should be permanently banned, he said. But whether social media companies agree to these terms isn’t clear.

    The meeting with the social media behemoths is set to happen next month. Mahan said this isn’t a violation of privacy because this activity is typically posted on public accounts.

    “We’re not policing what someone is privately texting to their friends and family members,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “Folks are actually benefiting from publicly posting videos of illegal activities and building large social media followings and their reputation is being socially rewarded.”

    But Raj Jayadev, founder of criminal justice organization Silicon Valley De-Bug, said asking tech companies to punish those who violate a local law by deactivating their account is an overreach that will primarily target youth of color.

    “It doesn’t sound right and it doesn’t sound legal,” Jayadev told San José Spotlight. “It’s an asinine request. I would imagine social media companies wouldn’t want to cut down their users or viewers anyway.”

    Mata said while these accounts are gaining more traction with likes and follows, SJPD is also receiving more calls about sideshows—indicating residents don’t feel safe. Last year, the department responded to 232 sideshows. This year police have already responded to 184, Mata said.

    Lilia Gaspar, a Seven Trees Neighborhood Association board member, with San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan and Police Chief Anthony Mata. She shared concerns over the growing number of sideshows. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Lilia Gaspar, a Seven Trees Neighborhood Association board member, said her family has been directly affected by the growing number of dangerous sideshows. Her son’s car has been stolen and her neighborhood is often loud from the cars, she said.

    She said she also encountered a life-threatening situation involving a sideshow when she was blocked from taking her 90-year-old mother to the hospital.

    “I’ve been stuck inside because of different sideshows,” Gaspar said. “Every weekend we have sideshows. Our vehicles are being damaged and it’s hurting our community.”

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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