During the January 3, 2015 nationally televised playoff game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens, a fan at Heinz Field pulled off a real-world twitter prank. He convinced enough people that if he received 400 retweets, he would rush the field.
JAKE BERLIN @RLBRLN
Screw it, #Steelers are losing anyway. 400 RTs and I’ll run onto Heinz Field
10:11 PM – 3 Jan 2015
6,370 Retweets 3,632 favorites
Eighteen minutes later, here’s the concerned expression of Jake being “carted away” by Heinz Field security.
JAKE BERLIN @RLBRLN
SOMEONE TAGGED THE STEELERS AND SECURITY CAME TO TAKE ME AWAY. OH MY GOD
10:29 PM – 3 Jan 2015
5,096 Retweets 5,017 favorites
Note how the number of re-tweets easily surpassed Berlin’s expectations.
Newsflash: it turns out the whole thing was a well-executed hoax. Mr. Berlin successfully created the “wireless illusion” that he was going to charge the field but was intercepted by stadium security and escorted from the venue. Truth be told, it was merely a publicity stunt designed to gain 15 seconds of fame and increase internet traffic for his website. I would deem his twitter endeavor a major success.
Let’s explore a little beyond the surface.
Berlin showed just how easy it is to sway large segments of a captive audience via social media. He exploited people’s time-sensitive emotions (playing off their curiosity and pesky enthusiasm) and got them to engage in physical activity. In this case, merely entering a command on their computer or mobile device.
But what if Berlin had a malicious agenda? What if his goal had been to manipulate people inside the stadium — getting them to physically and aggressively move toward a specific location? What if it was a convincing offer of free Primanti sandwiches or discounted Steelers merchandise? What if there was a high-profile celebrity sighting… say rap musician and longtime Steelers fan Snoop Dogg, hosting an impromptu party at a kiosk. He’s signing autographs and giving away free alcohol. Would there be any reason to be skeptical? Especially when thousands of people are reaffirming the same precise message. Perception is everything. There’s a fine line between manipulating fingers… and manipulating feet.
Let’s make it a little more believable. What if someone made intentionally false claims that an individual was giving away free scratch-off lottery tickets? What about someone randomly handing out $100 bills near Gate A (the most prominent point of entry and exit)?
Sound familiar? It should. Only two days earlier was the January 1, 2015 New Years stampede in Shanghai, China. Eyewitness accounts claimed the stampede was triggered by drink coupons, disguised as cash, being thrown from an establishment’s balcony. I can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy, but this assertion was repeated by virtually every news outlet. The final death toll was 36, with countless injured. Of course, something like this could NEVER happen in the United States. Because, Americans are less susceptible to hoaxes? (please read that sentence until you get the inflection right)
And what if it isn’t a single perpetrator? What if hundreds are involved? What if there was a deliberate, coordinated attempt to encourage fans to hurriedly exit the stadium? How might others react when they see people rushing, pushing and shoving? What happens when fans see more than one person trip and fall down a steep flight of concrete steps or get tangled in an escalator? A stampede is by definition… a stampede.
Modern NFL stadiums offer exceptional line-of-sight, not just toward the field, but throughout the stands and multiple levels. Evolutionary naysayers might deny it, but herding instincts are an easily verified commodity. When people see others panic, they panic.
With minimal technological ingenuity and a little creativity, Berlin pulled off a real-time, real-world hoax. There was no concerted wireless hack. There was no abuse of opt-in notification or text alert systems. This unverified story was quickly reported as fact by the Associated Press, Drudge Report, USA Today, etc. In their quest to quickly get the story out, reputable organizations fell prey to their ambition. They got it wrong. The gullibility of the press and those who frequent social media has been illustrated time and time again. Will these mediums continue to be exploited in the future? Or does it all magically cease in 2015?
Now here’s some additional irony. I was at Heinz Field for a July 27, 2014 international friendly soccer game between Manchester City and AC Milan. Near the end of the game, two young fans rushed the field and took a selfie with renowned striker Mario Balotelli.
They were physically escorted away by field personnel, but not before they instantly sent this picture to their followers… and essentially the planet earth.
Even though I witnessed the incident with my own eyes and later researched it, I had never given any thought to the notion of a “phony incursion” onto the playing surface. It just goes to show that when it comes to stadium security, you need to think outside the box and develop contingency plans for a wide array of events. Not everything dangerous is eliminated by a transparent 12″x6″x12″ plastic bag.
The “I was going to rush the field but got upended by security” hoax is the least of the NFL’s problems. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m concerned about far deeper asymmetric threats. I’ve explored countless scenarios where manipulation of social media platforms can impact physical movement, mostly grounded in fear and panic (credible evacuation orders, bomb threats, etc.). Think in terms of a “reverse flash mob.” Instead of summoning large numbers of people and quickly bringing them together, you’re simply doing the exact opposite. It’s not as complicated as you might think.
Attendance for the Heinz Field playoff game was listed at 62,780. How many of those fans were carrying cell phones and actively using them while the game was underway?
Large, confined venues must realistically address the problems presented by the proliferation of cellular technology. Awareness and contingency planning are essential. But you cannot change what you’re unwilling to acknowledge. This is the diabolical catch-22 regarding the prospect of an artificially generated stampede.
The Berlin case appears silly at face-value, but it speaks to a much bigger issue. It tangibly demonstrates why the NFL must make an acknowledgement and formal admission — Cell phones are capable of disseminating false information. We are not the only entity capable of distributing real-time information to fans in any of our 31 stadiums. This is not top-secret. It’s common sense.
Heinz Field security was completely oblivious to this prank as it unfolded. And even if they had known, there was little they could have done.
I once voiced my concern about an artificially generated stampede to a police chief/incident commander for a major NCAA Division I University. He snapped back, “Well if someone tried that, they’d be spending the night in jail!” To which I replied, “What if that person lived outside the United States? What if you couldn’t determine who did it? What if it was thousands of people unknowingly relaying hoax information?” Needless to say, I could sense his anger and frustration. People in positions of authority often fare poorly when confronted with scenarios outside their realm of expertise. It gets even worse if you mention variables they’ve never considered.
Perhaps Mr. Berlin did the National Football League a favor. Maybe their front office will engage in a comprehensive discussion and forge a new path forward. Regrettably, I must be blunt — if you think the NFL is willing to make a voluntary admission that its stadiums could be unsafe, you are a fool. The NFL will disregard the entire incident because it would compel a greater degree of accountability. Being proactive takes guts. It’s ironic how a sports league that relies on “courageous professionalism” would choose to function in a way that belies unconscionable cowardice.
Will the Steelers take legal action against Jake Berlin? If you believe they will, you are seriously mistaken. They don’t want the added attention because it exposes critical, underlying vulnerabilities with the generic, outdated models that currently govern stadium security. If you require proof, just try asking Jimmy Sacco, Director of Stadium Management (1-412-697-7150). I can assure you… your call will go unreturned, just like mine (January 5, 2015 at 1:37 pm).
You might find this to be an unusual, eerie coincidence. But I wrote a book about the inconsistencies of Heinz Field security a month before the Berlin incident even transpired. Unlike most books, mine are free and conveniently available online.
(Warning: contains violent content and graphic imagery)
Troubleshooting hypothetical stadium security issues is an admittedly difficult process. So I’ll leave you with one final thought. When you think of the mafia, you think of Omerta. But compared to the NFL’s code of silence, that’s small cannoli. Fahgettaboudit.