Social media and the Vancouver riots

June 20, 2011

Vancouver police arrested almost 100 people after a riot broke out Wednesday, and are looking to lock up more, with the help of YouTube.

The website of the Vancouver Police Department prominently features a special “Hockey Riot 2011″ section where visitors can watch and read a statement by Chief Constable Jim Chu.

Constable Chu has promised to “bring all our resources to bear,” committing “the full weight of the Criminal Justice System [sic] in swiftly apprehending those responsible.”

The police department put out a request for bystander video of the riot, and were quickly inundated with submissions. A note on the VPD website thanked citizens for the overwhelming response, and begged their patience while police sifted through the footage.

The city’s newspapers jumped on the initiative: a tabloid editorial on Thursday called on residents to “drop a dime” on the rioters:

“In the age of the Internet and social media, most of those responsible for the mayhem will be easy to pick out — if, and only if, citizens do their part and report them to police.

There’s plenty of footage already available, and more will surely surface. A lot of the video shot by the crowd shows others filming friends posing in the front of burning cars.”

Editorials also heaped blame on bystanders for doing nothing, or for watching. Sports columnist Bobby Brooks theorized that Twitter and YouTube played a role in exacerbating the mayhem:

“Almost immediately after the riot broke out the event began to trend on Twitter. Users also began to geo-tag the scene to document what was going on where in real-time… What these thousands of on-lookers failed to realize at the time is that their mere digital presence only served to encourage more rioting behavior… Riot police urged people to leave time and time again, but excitement and hysteria of the moment kept swarms of people armed with the power of social media lingering around to see what would happen next.”

Brooks’s theory might be difficult to prove; there were riots long before there were #riots. Blaming – and now using – social media in the context of what happened in downtown Vancouver could spring more from a societal obsession with the evolving role of Twitter, YouTube, privacy and public space.

There’s no word yet on how police will investigate clips of the event and identify those on video, especially when all a detective may have is a face in a Bieksa jersey smashing a storefront. If police already possessed some Orwellian digital database of citizen’s faces, they could employ something akin toFacebook’s controversial face-recognition software. But there is no indication VPD has, or will attempt to construct, any such resource.

While the anonymous couple caught kissing on camera amid the mayhem made famous has now have been identified, there’s also no indication that any of the crowd-sourced content offered to investigators will help detectives in any CSI-like fashion. The bulk of the detective work will almost certainly be carried out by one-on-one interviews of the hundred arrested and the hundreds more who witnessed the riot. One newspaper reports the provincial government is looking at establishing a special team of prosecutors to deal with charges arising from Wednesday’s riot. But it’s unclear how many will face charges, or even arrest.

And despite the many videos, it’s unclear how much hard evidence they hold against those arrested. Most of those arrested have already been released on misdemeanor charges of “breach of peace” or public intoxication. Eight were arrested for criminal code violations, but two of those were released for lack of evidence. Two were charged in connection to a stabbing.

The massive amount of police work now required to investigate and prosecute looters could dwarf the enforcement needed to prevent a riot. Business and property owners in the downtown area have criticized the police for not prognosticating, and preempting, the destruction. Even The Province, calling for prosecution of the vandals, ended its editorial with a demand that police reexamine their tactics, saying “it certainly appeared that more cops on the ground more quickly could have arrested troublemakers earlier and prevented some of the later violence.”

While the police reflect on their tactics and review video of the riots, some in the social media world have taken matters into their own hands. Individuals have set up online forums aimed at outing those who participated in the riot. There’s a Tumblr site featuring amateur detective work analyzing photos, videos, Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds. A post on that site publishes the purported phone number of an individual who claimed via Twitter to have participated in the mayhem. The admin of the Tumblr account seems to have cross-referenced the name of the Twitter user with a Facebook search, and re-posted the man’s contact info. Whether or not he’s guilty of anything, he may need to change his phone plan.

There’s also a Facebook page titled “Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos,” where fans of the page backslap each others’ attempts to expose and vilify individuals like this kid. There’s even an angry music video now up on Vimeo cut together with footage of riot, with a note calling the mayhem “disgraceful, unsportsmanlike and above all, un-Canadian.”

This aggregation of video and user-generated content for both the legal and vigilante pursuit of those responsible for looting and vandalism has sparked its own questions. Blogging at the Harvard Business Review, Alexandra Samuel cautioned that the use of social media in this format indicates a leap into crowd-sourced surveillance. Samuel, the director of Emily Carr University’s Interactive Media Center, writes:

“I think about other ways that crowdsourced surveillance has been or might be put to use: By pro-life demonstrators posting photos of women going into clinics that provide abortions. By informants in authoritarian states tracking posts and tweets critical of the government. By employers that scan Facebook to see which of their employees have been tagged in photos on Pride Day or 4/20.”

The riot has already disappeared from the headlines. The mayhem may linger longer in the memory of Vancouverites, and in the popular history of the sport of hockey. But the aftermath and response may be a landmark in a new paradigm of privacy, a change we may not fully realize has already occurred.


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Posted by Bruins report card – Boston Herald | Report as abusive

How we handle the aftermath will tell more about our society than the riot. The riot involved a few instigators and numerous, random individuals who got caught up in the chaos and violence. This is not to excuse them. They should be held accountable for their actions and taken through the justice system, which should not let them off with a slap on the wrist. But there’s a far greater mob activity now taking place – something terrifying and ugly. The internet mob – people hiding behind their computer screens joining together to completely destroy the participants of the riot, bystanders who were photographed, families of participants, the reach from the internet is broad and long, very long. People are out for blood, and it almost seems that it doesn’t matter who’s blood they get. Pictures of lynch mobs, witch burnings, etc. are not far out of scope of this activity by the masses on websites like Facebook who are out for so much revenge destruction that untold innocent people’s lives will be devastated as well.
Put it into perspective. Yes the rioters deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions. But justice demands that the punishment fit the crime – not that the punishment be so over the top that the actual particulars of the crime are diminished in comparison.
As a society, we have a responsibility to ourselves and each other to rise above the level of the crimes committed, and require justice. Justice is not blind mob-driven revenge. The track many of us seem to be on is taking us to the same low level as the rioters, and even lower, because at least some of those rioters now seriously and sincerely regret their actions, and realize the terrible and devastating impact resulting from their actions – mostly done in blind, spontaneous stupidity. Yet those online, on facebook and other social media sources, creating their own destruction and devastation are showing no remorse, no regret, for the devastation they’ve caused, and in fact continue to defend their actions – not done from blind, spontaneous stupidity, but from deliberate, calculated motives bordering on, if not completely driven by hate. What kind of society are we becoming? It’s very frightening to see this type of mob response in the 21st century Canada.

Posted by JoMarwoo | Report as abusive

Isn’t the media (now with comment boards) by extension of the same argument a form of surveillance? The media reports on people in public court – and there’s no short supply of incendiary stories. The media’s also certainly rife with inflammatory comments.

If we can watch this on TV, why not on social media? Who is to judge the boundaries of free speech or free media (press)?

The words “mob” or “vigilante” are used a lot but without referencing a notable fact. No one’s caused actual violence on Facebook so far. 0 injuries.

Social media’s a public discussion forum – unruly as some comments maybe. Those comments reflect real sentiments (outrageous as some may be). If we can read about these sentiments in the media or watch them on TV or in movies…why not social media?

Posted by chungw | Report as abusive