'Sharpies Parties' Use Social Media To Galvanize Anger Vs. Foreclosed Homes

  @YannickLeJacq on August 17 2012 12:42 PM

In the latest twist in social media, so-called "Sharpie Parties" have become a new form of protest in California, particularly by people upset about the continuing pace of home foreclosures.

According to a report by Reuters, groups of revelers use accounts on Twitter and Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) to lure crowds to foreclosed homes around Los Angeles and other parts of the Golden State. Upon arrival, they are given "Sharpie" magic markers made by Newell Rubbermaid Inc. (NYSE: NWL) and encouraged to deface the boarded-up and abandoned homes.

One California county alone has tallied at least six Sharpie parties in recent months, NBC Los Angeles reports. Lawrence Walsh, who assesses foreclosures in Los Angeles County, told NBC that while he hasn't seen any "Sharpies Parties" in full-tilt himself, he's often identified the aftermath. "A lot of times they've taken all the built-in appliances, hot water heaters, light fixtures, things of that nature," he said. "They kicked holes in walls and doors."

The allure of social media to vandalism would seem to be the anonymity it preserves for some offenders. An investigator speaking to Reuters explained that the rapid response time of social media also allowed partygoers to form and disperse as quickly and seamlessly as the time required to create a Facebook event in the first place. Similar use of social media has led to summoning and dispersal of mobs to protest meetings of the economic summits of world leaders as well as the World Trade Organization.

An irony of this kind of protest is the imprint revelers leave behind: the digital records also hand police a good deal of evidence.

Discussing a recent investigation, Anna Hazel, an investigator in the Merced County District Attorney's office in California, told Reuters social media was instrumental to the case. Information was initially discovered through a Facebook page advertising an event known as "Matt's House of Mayhem."

"We obtained search warrants for Facebook accounts," Hazel said. "It was very useful to us to get access to the social networks. They posted pictures of the party. They were brazen about it."

Hazel claimed at least 100 people went to the party itself, with hundreds more text messages being sent through smartphones to add context to the event. So far three suspects -- men aged 21, 24, and 30 -- have been arrested on suspicion of felony vandalism, burglary and conspiracy.

One suspect is the son of a former owner who was evicted, Reuters reports. This corroborates NBC's claim that homeowners blaming banks and others for their foreclosures and financial issues "take out their anger on the home."

As the tech website GigaOM explained in an excellent analysis, social media provides the user much-needed "validation" for certain protests. By validating strong emotions, Twitter and Facebook can only serve to enhance people's frustration and sense of solidarity around ambiguous causes. As Larry Morse, the Merced D.A., told Reuters, "The Sharpie party is the newest twist here." Andy Krotic, a California realtor, added. "It's a growing fad among young people, especially the Twitter crowd. They throw a big party, everyone gets a Sharpie, and they are invited to write on the walls and spray paint."

Banks, the report explains, are hesitating to press charges to pursue any alleged perpetrators due to a general lack of resources and the fear that it would only fan the flames of social media, inciting larger and more destructive events.  "Usually they leave the damage and just drop the price," Krotic explained.

Shares of Newell Rubbermaid rose 18 cents to $17.39 in Friday trading, while those of Facebook set a new record low of $19.01, down 86 cents.

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