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