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Social Media, Crowd-Sourced Justice, and the Vancouver Riots

Posted on 18 June 2011

I wrote this on my phone, so I apologize for any spelling errors and the fact that I’ve pasted full urls instead of just hyperlinking text. update: fixed

One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about blogging is having an outlet to write and work out my own thoughts on some difficult and not-so-difficult subjects. So I appreciate it if you’ll indulge me in another piece about something that’s stayed at the top of my mind for the last few days: the Vancouver riots.

I’ve already written about how for all the good intentions and kind actions that have come out in an effort to clean up the mess, these riots shook up my existing fears about the darker side of human nature– fears that won’t easily go away. But today I’m going to try and work out how I feel about social media’s role in all this– and the whole new set of fears it brings with it.

First of all, and this is more an observation than anything else, social media brought this to me in real time. While CBC TV was still showing Boston Bruins taking turns hoisting the Cup, Twitter told me that a car was turned over just outside the CBC building. Radio and TV were on it soon after, but I didn’t feel like I could get a full picture without hearing from those in the thick of it.

Secondly, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr et al. were once again shown to be completely neutral tools. While people have written about the idiocy of those broadcasting their actions through social networks (and speculated that the implicit audience on the other end of those networks helped egg the idiocy on), that desire to broadcast actions has made it easier for rioters to be caught.

As a sidebar to that thought, I have to say there was definitely some mixed messaging going on that those in positions of authority (or “authority”) will need to address at some point. Almost immediately, I saw traditional media outlets on their Twitter accounts with messages like, “Are you downtown? Send us your pictures!” Soon thereafter, the Vancouver Police were warning against stopping to take pictures and instead telling everyone and anyone to get out of there as soon as possible. Shortly after THAT they were urging anyone downtown taking pictures to hold onto them, as they could be used to help identify the rioters. Meanwhile, traditional media was, of course, on the scene documenting what was going on, all while repeating the police message that people shouldn’t be on the scene documenting things, but if you ARE on the scene documenting things send your pictures into police– and us, too, while you’re at it.

But the aspect of all this that I’m having the most trouble with is how social media has affected things in the aftermath. While cleanup efforts organized online are undoubtedly good, it’s the “Let’s figure out who did this and go get ’em!” aspect that’s leaving me leery. Here’s why:

Yes, in this case, the people breaking the law were involved in highly negative behaviour and need to take responsibility for their actions. And unlike in past incidents of mass mayhem, social media has provided the silent majority with a voice to express their upset and disbelief while at the same time working to de-anonymize the crowd and identify individuals within it. And now these individuals will be punished (maybe).

But there’s at least two problems that I can see. One: innocent until proven guilty. Posing in front of a burning cop car may be stupid, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the one who set it on fire. I’m seeing a lot of pictures of people who may have thought cavorting through the destruction was all a bit of fun, but that doesn’t mean they were taking part in actually doing the destroying. Even photos and video that seem drop dead obvious deserve to go through the mechanisms of the law before crowd justice is meted out. That’s why the process is there: to avoid trial by a mob looking for someone to punish. Outraged as we all are, we may be too quick to unleash our fury on the first person who looks like they halfway deserve it.

Second, a strong current of vigilantism is cropping up here. We’re already hearing the courts may be too clogged up to try everyone identified, so there’s a temptation to take it into our own hands. Facebook profiles are being publicly outed, names are being disseminated, and in at least one case someone has lost their job. Even our premier is urging public shunning.

I’m upset by the physical and emotional damage caused by the rioters, but that doesn’t mean I’m prepared to turn my back on the principals of rehabilitation I believe should be at the core of any system of justice. If I believe in second chances for convicted criminals provided they are working through their actions and don’t pose public risk, how can I be comfortable with the firing and isolation of people before they are found guilty of any wrongdoing? I’m not saying these people shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of what they did, I’m just saying it needs to be managed. Lock then up and throw away the key hasn’t traditionally worked out in the creation of a better society.

Finally, I’m concerned about the light this has shone on the potential for future uses of crowd-sourced justice. In China, there was (is?) a system of governments paying neighbourhood “grannies” to keep an eye on their neighbours for immoral or questionable behaviour. Imagine if those grannies were armed with cameraphones and face-recognition software (maybe they are, for all I know). We have things like Blockwatch and Crimestoppers to anonymously report suspicions directly to authorities, but the accused are not publicly outed and have to go through the process of the law. I’m concerned about the potential for crowdsourcing not just accusations, but punishments as well. Today it’s rioters, tomorrow it’s grafitti artists, or public figures involved in homosexual relationships, or reading the wrong books and hanging out with the wrong people in the wrong places at the wrong time.

I’m not saying none of these problems came into being because of social media, and there’s certainly room for social media to lessen the problems. But it’s just as possible for it to amplify them, as photos and phone numbers and addresses are disseminated among hundreds and thousands of people looking to eke out their own sense of justice on those deemed worth of punishment. And that’s where we have to keep our cool. If the Vancouver riots prove anything, it’s that a few hotheads have the potential to influence a larger crowd enough to do incredible damage. In looking for justice, we have to be careful not to do the same.


I started thinking about all this almost immediately following the riots, but haven’t written it all out until now. In that time, some great pieces have already been written on the subject. The ones I’ve read are:

Wave the Stick: Things That Make Me Angry
Matthew Ingram: Social Media Brings Out the Snitch In All Of Us
David Eaves: Social Media and Rioters
Alexandra Samuel: Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance

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