10 challenging perspectives on social media & the Vancouver riots

The past week has been a laboratory in the power and limitations of online dialogue. While I have been troubled by the number of simplistic, hostile or unconsidered posts and comments about crowdsourcing the identification of rioters, I have more often been astounded by the depth of comments, willingness to engage with complexity and especially, by people’s willingness to publicly rethink their initial response.

Many of the posts and comments that have engaged with my posts, or to which others have pointed me for further analysis, have helped me deepen and extend my own thinking. There are more thoughtful pieces about the riot and its online aftermath than I could possibly have anticipated, or possibly cite, but you can find just about every link I have shared (or been pointed to) by surfing through my recent delicious bookmarks. (There may also be some shoe shopping sites: I have been healing the pain with simulated retail therapy.)

In this post I round up some of the quotes and comments that have intrigued, challenged or inspired me. I don’t agree with all of them, but every one of them — and every one of the posts they are drawn from — is well worth reading.

A number of psychological factors are working together that turn good ole “Johnny” into out-of-control trouble-maker. Most importantly are a trio of concepts.

Emotion contagion: This is known as the emotion that gets triggered in a crowd and spreads like wildfire…During the Vancouver Olympics, the nationalistic euphoria seen among the people in the streets was the good side of the coin.  Last night, we saw the bad.  Once the first match was lit, the mob mentality was set in motion.

Deindividuation: This happens at almost every sporting event.  When you dress up in team gear, wear face paint, and so on, you lose your sense of self and become part of a greater identity….The role of anonymity in crowd behavior cannot be underestimated.  Self-awareness and personal identity get lost and get replaced with identification with the goals and actions of the group.

Bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility: It might sound counter-intuitive, but the larger the crowd, the less of a chance that someone will intervene.  People think to themselves “someone else will step in” and, ironically, this leads to everybody doing nothing to stop whatever social norms/laws are being broken.

— Bobby Brooks, Vancouver Riot: Psychology (not Hooligans) Responsible for the Chaos

People keep saying that the people responsible for the destruction and violence do not represent Vancouver. Well, guess what? They do now. Next time someone wants to hold a big outdoor celebration–they’ll represent us. Next time someone applies for a liquor license–they’ll represent us. Next time those of us who have viable ideas about how to make this No Fun City a city to be proud of–the jerks taking pictures of themselves in front of burning cars and looting stores will be speaking for us. And I for one really, really resent that.

— Morgan Brayton, Dear Hooligans

The more powerful camp is the positive social movement that formed, almost immediately, towards healing the city. By midnight on the night of the riot citizens had self-organized to commit to clean up downtown….I believe this is the most powerful group because these actions were:

  • spontaneous: happened instantly without any leader
  • networked: the response arose from multiple places at once
  • non-rational: cleaning a city isn’t my job; what good will art do
  • and ultimately they served a unifying purpose that brought us closer together

This response sprung naturally from people transmuting the anger we felt into love and action, using art and social media as the expression engine. This is the signature of a social movement.

— Jason Mogus,Social media builds or diminishes community, our choice

Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act forbids the mainstream media from printing any image or information that might serve to identify an alleged – or convicted – young offender. But the courts have never had much luck applying those laws to the Web, or to citizen vigilantes. What are the odds, and the dangers, that youths who are entitled to protection under Canada’s law could lose that right in these circumstances? Or that they already have?

But there’s another, subtler, point here. We are already under surveillance much of the time in this country, from private and police security cameras. Since 9/11, many of our traditional attitudes towards that culture of surveillance have shifted, so that we positively seem to welcome being under Orwellian observation. But now, is that surveillance culture going to permeate our social media networks as well?

— Paula Simons, Who Will Watch the Watchers?

I see nothing to suggest that mutual surveillance will erode community, indeed, I think it already has demonstrated that it does the opposite. Mutual surveillance fosters lots of communities – from communities that track human rights abuses, to communities that track abortion providers to communities that track disabled parking violators. Surveillance builds communities, it may be that, in many cases, those communities pursue the marginalization of another community or termination of a specific behaviour, but that does not make them any less a part of our society’s fabric. It may not create communities everyone likes, but it can create community. What matters here is not if we can monitor one another, but what ends up happening with the information we generate, and why I think we’ll want to think hard about what we allow the state to do and to permit others to do, more and more carefully.

— David Eaves, Social media and rioters

At the conventional level of moral development, there is a reliance on the State to take care of all law and order and other human welfare concerns.  Equally, nonaction is explained by it “not being my responsibility”, and action explained by “my ‘boss’ told me to do it.”  Only in post-conventional moral development do we see individuals, like Romeo Dallaire, seeking to act independently.  When asked, they almost always respond that they felt they had no choice because it is the right thing to do.  These are the heros that stop bullies and massacres and are whistleblowers and hide Jews and do all manner of independent action.

— Laura Mogus, commenting On the dangers of crowdsourced surveillance

There are dangerous social consequences that we cannot yet imagine when we shamelessly take justice into our own hands. Scarier still, is the ferocity with which seemingly rational and intelligent individuals will bare their teeth upon another in an open digital forum – and this is not some  online platform of yesteryear where angryman2011 and lonelygirl666 are having it out amidst the comfort of anonymity- this is fucking FACEBOOK. Our grandparents are on Facebook and so is our little cousin.

— Scott Valentine, The Vancouver Riots & Social Media: When The Cart Gets Put Ahead Of The Horse

Social media is about relationships, and for better or worse it leads inevitably toward an accelerated imposition of the (connected) crowd’s “will” onto a situation. In this case, the “connected crowd’s” favored punishment for those causing damage to other persons and property. Unsurprisingly, there is little latent support for such irresponsible behavior given the absurdity of the conditions under which it arose, hence people were especially quick to react in opposition to it.

The dynamic we are observing is predictable and perhaps it’s more interesting to view it in the broader context of what social media is doing to individuality, etc. Does the raw speed at which things happen in social media make people react differently than they would in similar contexts but with classic channels of communication?

– Julio Rodriguez, commenting on
After a Loss in Vancouver, Troubling Signals of Citizen Surveillance

Offering legal consideration, however, is what marks us as a civilized society. Even where the evidence is overwhelming, we don’t rush to judgment. We take our time. We make sure we have as much of the evidence as possible before charges are laid and we give the accused every chance to get legal representation. Journalists working in the traditional media are trained to take all this into account in preparing their stories for public consumption….In the social media, where everyone is a publisher, the rules can break down.

— Daniel Henry, Is it illegal to name and shame rioters online?

While the reaction of social media users to identify and shame alleged rioters is unsurprising this doesn’t mean that the practices should go unchallenged or left free of critique. The actions taken to identify, name, and shame alleged rioters is the beginning of a slide towards a state of mind and looseness of ethics that have been proven to cause harm abroad: I see no reason, based on those experiences, why we should import known, failed, modes of citizen surveillance and investigation into the Canadian experience.

— Christopher Parsons, Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine

Thanks to everyone who has pointed me towards these posts — and to everyone who has jumped into this conversation. It gives me hope that we can use the Internet not only for finger-pointing, but to think through difficult issues together.

Riot vigilantes speak for themselves

In the past couple of days I’ve heard from people who were initially enthusiastic about the crowdsourcing of rioter identification, but now see the concern with this kind of vigilantism. I’d love to take credit, but I’m not the most convincing voice in this argument.

The real argument for restraint comes from the folks who are participating in online identification efforts on Facebook and blogs. As the week wears on, it’s the tenor of comments posted about the rioters has included many nasty, racist, misogynistic or generally hateful remarks. It’s the angry, prejudiced and even violent tone of comments that has more and more people what is scary about the other mob — the one that has materialized online.

I suspect with good intentions, the managers of some of the sites and Facebook pages tracking riot participants have taken it up on themselves to edit out the most hateful comments. It’s a great example of what makes censorship dangerous: by taking away the most egregiously hateful examples, we’re left with the impression of a far more restrained call for justice than what has actually unfolded online. Leaving those comments up would force the convenors of these mobs to recognize the kind of hostile mentality these sites have unleashed, and allow others to form their own judgements of whether crowdsourcing the identification of riot participants is appropriate or scary.

To that end I’ve snapped a few choice comments that give you some sense of what concerns me about the sentiments unfolding online. They’re in no way representative, nor do they really capture the worst of what’s been posted: I came across many extensive threads that criticized racist comments, in which the originating (racist) comment had been deleted.

And that should tell you the other sense in which these comments are unrepresentative: they don’t reflect the extraordinary backlash to the backlash that is unfolding on every “riot justice” site I have seen. It doesn’t take an op-ed or blog post for people to see for themselves what is frightening about the emergent online mob, and hundreds if not thousands of people are out there challenging the mob and speaking up for due process.

It a week that has made me fear the speed at which mobs can emerge, both online and off, these folks have given me hope. I can see how many people have both the instinct and the courage to speak up against vigilantism, racism and plain old meanness. They’re my heroes.

From Vancouver Riot Pics on Facebook:

Treat them like animals

Facebooker says let's ship them to Afghanistan

A facebook comments says we should round them up

Describes a 14 year old as a "stupid little cunt"

"Wish I would be behind that dude about to sucker punch him with a rock.."

From Public Shaming Eternus:

"Stick a rag in this fuckers asshole and i bet there would be line up of people waiting to light it! "