Mob Behaviour, Online and Off, Vancouver’s Legacy

By Jason Menard,

Vancouver’s legacy won’t be one of shattered glass and the residual stench of long-died-out flames; instead, the post-Stanley Cup riots will be a defining event in using social media to combat mob behaviour.

Unfortunately, what’s started as a good story of an on-line community rallying around its city to bring a group of cowards to justice is rapidly becoming a cautionary tale about the lure of anonymity both online and off. 

Vancouver police have reported that they’ve received over one million photos and a thousand hours of video from citizens wanting to help bring the June 15th rioters to justice — that’s in addition to the countless hours of video and photos already on social media networks for mass consumption.

Now, all of the sudden, we have a bunch of scared little kids coming forward, betraying none of the bravado that they employed when they believed they wouldn’t be caught. You see, while I have no time for the type of people who are making this kid’s and his family’s life hell, I have far less time for people who, when faced with the reality of criminal charges, say, “I don’t know why I did it… I just got caught up in the crowd.”

Bull. You know exactly why you did it – because you thought you’d get away with it thanks to the protective anonymity provided by the crowd. The only reason you’re ashamed now is because there’s video evidence.

Ask yourself, if there were no pics or vids, how quickly would these same people turn themselves in?

But there are pics and vids. And they’re rapidly circulating throughout the world thanks to the power of social media. These thought-we-were-anonymous rioters are now facing more exposure than they ever could have imagined. Instead of being a face in the crowd, many of them are becoming the faces of the crowd – and they’re facing the consequences of their actions, ranging from lost sponsorships to lost opportunities as organizations are loathe to affiliate their cause or brand with these vandals.

So far so good. You’re willing to do the crime, now be willing to face the consequences of your action. Social media is helping bring these people to justice in a way that likely would never have happened before. After all, a few street cameras, file footage from media outlets, and police on hand can only show so much.

In the past, these people may have gotten away with their actions. Now, faced with thousands upon thousands of camera-phone wielding cohorts, many of whom filmed the action not to help the police but rather to post onto YouTube or Facebook, they’re coming out the woodwork, with hollow-sounding apologies and pleas.

The bad? Now another faceless, anonymous group is using social media to perpetuate just as grievous and cowardly of a mob action as the rioters. Exposed rioters are being cyber-bullied, threatened by anonymous posters, subjected to libellous comments, and having private details – including home addresses and phone numbers – shared with those who are readying the cyber-torches and pitchforks. Even those exposures tinged with humour (The Ballad of Brock Anton) toe dangerously close to the line.

Just as a certain subset of society will gain a measure of bravery that’s directly related to the size of the crowd that’s hiding them, so too are there those who will say and do things from behind a keyboard that they’d never say eye to eye to a real person. Yet, just as with the rioters, these viral vigilantes must also be held accountable for their words and actions online.

How the authorities handle this matter will go a long way towards defining the way social media can be used for future actions of this nature. How the courts view and treat on-line video, how police work through jurisdictional nightmares when it comes to on-line threats and libel, and how an angered community quells the rising tide of vigilante justice will be the true and lasting legacy of the Vancouver riots.

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