Seeking to clamp down on sideshows’ wreaking havoc in San Jose, Mayor Matt Mahan is asking social media companies to shut down videos showcasing the raucous street gatherings that often attract hundreds or thousands to events and result in a deluge of widely shared videos.
The request is raising a mountain of practical and legal questions from content moderation experts who contend that reining in the videos could be exceedingly difficult for companies to do effectively or ethically.
Mahan sent a letter to TikTok, Snapchat and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, requesting they boot users off their platforms for 30 days if they share videos about sideshows — and indefinitely if users don’t stop after an initial violation.
At sideshows — which originated in Oakland four decades ago — a driver or multiple drivers take over a blocked-off intersection and do stunts such as doughnuts, sometimes with passengers hanging out precariously from the car’s windows. They have led to injuries and even death and leave intersections with streaks of tire marks.
“These events are fueled by social media,” an Aug. 30 letter from the mayor reads. “They are increasingly spread, consumed, and attended primarily for the purpose of generating content to gain social media notoriety. We want to work with you to find a solution for the good of our entire city.”
The mayor said the companies have expressed a willingness to work with the city and its police department on what he deemed a public safety matter. The city has also reached out to X, formerly Twitter, but is still waiting for a response.
“This is really about incentives,” said Mahan in an interview on Thursday. “If your viral video is left unchecked for hours and gathers tens of thousands of likes, it gives you reach. It gives you attention. It gives you clout.”
The mayor has also leaned on his relationship with Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a friend from their undergraduate days together at Harvard University and whom he personally reached out to on the matter. Mahan said it was only to notify Zuckerberg that he was making the request to the company’s government affairs team. Zuckerberg did not specifically weigh in on the issue with him, Mahan said.
As evidence, the city can point to a sideshow near San Jose’s Lundy Avenue and Concourse Drive in April 2022 in which three people suffered broken bones and a head injury. A video on Instagram already played 777,000 times shows a white Tesla sedan at the intersection driving in circles mere feet away from jubilant observers. In November, the city ramped up its efforts when it cited over 700 people during a sideshow at the corner of Monterey Highway and Branham Lane. Through a coordinated effort by police, a ghost gun was recovered on the scene, and nearly 20 cars were impounded. In March 2022 in Oakland, a man was fatally shot and another two were injured at an early Saturday morning sideshow.
San Jose and Alameda County both recently tightened the laws around sideshows. In 2019, the South Bay city’s councilmembers passed an ordinance that fined participants $1,000 if they were found within 200 feet of the event. In July, a similar ordinance was approved for unincorporated parts of Alameda County — and also included a possible three-month sentence behind bars.
In a statement, Meta confirmed it was in touch with the mayor about the issue but didn’t elaborate on whether the company would take any action. Snapchat, TikTok and X did not respond to a request for comment.
During a news conference on Thursday at the intersection of Curtner Avenue and Monterey Highway, Mahan was joined by San Jose Police Department Chief Anthony Mata and community organizers who say the sideshows have been detrimental to the city, specifically in the Seven Trees neighborhood.
Lilia Gaspar, a board member of the Seven Trees Neighborhood Association, said her son’s car had been stolen at one point and used in a sideshow.
“Vehicles are being damaged,” Gaspar said. “And it is hurting our community.”
It wasn’t immediately clear what role the city’s police would play in working with social media companies. When asked how shutting down online sideshow content could impact the ability of law enforcement to investigate an incident, a police spokesperson replied, “This is new territory for all of us, and SJPD is committed to exploring any available resources to help combat sideshows.”
Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who specializes in online regulation, said it is hard to parse between videos that are posted by sideshow participants — and those posted by a journalist or activist who is trying to get the word out about the event’s harmful impacts.
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“There are no easy or clean answers here in how we can make things better,” he said. “Any content moderation related to sideshows will hurt some social goals and help other social goals.”
Hannah Bloch-Wehba, a law professor at Texas A&M University who focuses on the intersection of technology and democratic governance, said that when social media companies are considering moderating content, it matters who is raising the concern.
“They’re going to be convinced not because of the risk but because of the relationship to the mayor, potentially, which makes it more persuasive,” she said. “These requests are not just about the things that are being regulated, it is about who is making the request.”