In the wake of the ‘social media justice’ extravaganza surrounding the Vancouver Riots, some remarkable things have occurred. I’m sure a few unremarkable things occurred (not including my six and half minutes of fame), but I’d like to pontificate about what I see as a tectonic shift in perspectives around social media, the power of the crowd source and our inconsistent indignation in regards to privacy.
As I watched the live footage unfold, late at night through traffic cams, I had the natural disaster porn response: fascination. It was a fascination mixed with disgust though – and a lack of surprise. But we’re all aware of the horrible nature of the riot, the outside public’s condemnation of it. It’s what started happening immediately afterwards that really caught my attention. At first, I was duly impressed with the accuracy, expediency and velocity at which participants in the vandalism and violence were being identified. In the same time it took for me to express my ‘editorial’ commentary on the rioters, several of them had either come forward (in light of peer/social pressure to do so) or were named, shamed and exposed on the internet. Even in the initial chaos of it, it almost became self-organizing as people gravitated towards certain sites, began grouping their discoveries, and working in probably what was one of the largest incohesive efforts for justice. It was astonishing that offenders were being catalogued right down to the second in which they appear in the hundreds of videos that have been posted.
But at some point, it became something a little uglier.
What we witnessed here is the double-edged sword of the … for lack of better phrasing – the power of the internet. Throw around whatever colloquialisms you want: “With great power comes great responsibility” or “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”. On one hand, a huge collective self-organized itself on to clean up the city (thousands turning out) the next morning. Thousands. And we had dozens of the worst rioters identified to police and being appropriately charged, and still more coming forward before the internet could expose them.
People dug a little too deep, and began posting private details about some of these people – a good number of them minors that technically should have had their identities protected under the Young Offenders Act. It had gone so far that Nathan Kotylak’s father had to shut down his medical practice and flee their home because of threats. Somewhere along the line, those seeking justice had been caught up by the fever pitch of the movement that they had in turn, become exactly what they were hunting – a mindless mob causing destruction. I think that counts as irony.
What I find interesting is that this – I hate to use the word again – power is that it’s no longer in the hands of elite and shadowy hackers or computer anarchist groups like Anonymous. It’s both scary and exciting – because we have to learn how to use this power appropriately.
While the debate has now begun about appropriate punishments for YO’s and other rioters – let me be very clear about this. Vigilante justice, making personal threats against family, friends and businesses that had previous association with them is not cool. The world wide Webbers should have stopped at passing on evidence and identity information to the VPD. Though a cursory reading of my ‘photo editorial’ might appear otherwise, I meant it as a hard-edged joke. I hope that they are all
persecuted prosecuted under the law fairly, and that they are given the chance to make amends for a collective effort at mindless destruction. And being that some of the number of people seeking justice on the internet went that far as well, I hope that we can look at the justice they will receive with a little perspective on the potential for anyone to be caught up in the mob mentality. I’m not advocating leniency. Just perspective.
The other thing I think has been completely overlooked here is something that can be viewed as either a positive shift in privacy and personal responsibility, or an ugly realization in authoritarian monitoring. I’m leaning more towards the former, but there will be a few that once it hits home will probably start shouting something about a conspiracy.
Here in Ontario, and in North America, there has oft been resistance to the idea of being under surveillance; Photo Radar, CCTV – any kind of authority with constant monitoring ability has been balked at. And yet – in this incident, or the G20 in Toronto, people have volunteered their photos, videos, data and more importantly their time to combing through all of this data to find and deliver offenders to justice. Not only have we suddenly become comfortable with this idea – it’s what we participate actively in everyday. Our social media habits have turned us into a society that parallels that of Oceania in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
We have become Big Brother.
Big Brother is often the literary measuring stick against government tyranny and control, but at the end of the day – the people themselves are the real fuel for fear. The philosophy of Big Brother, the concept of him, doesn’t work without the compliance of the masses. And in effect, the people become a self monitoring system, snitching on neighbors and friends, turning over family members – all for the good of the many. That’s what we did here to the point where it was dangerous.
Should we be afraid?
No, don’t be stupid. It was only a book.
We have to be cautious though – our ability to peer deeply into others lives is something that we need to respect and use only to the extent that we are working within the framework of the law. Remember – my right to swing my arm stops right before your nose.