The Vancouver Riot Social media backlash: Justice or revenge?

In the 25 years I’ve lived here, I’ve never had to say this – indeed, I never believed I would ever say this – but last Wednesday, I was ashamed to say I live in British Columbia. I wasn’t the only one. I’m guessing the vast majority of the other 4.5 million people that call this Canadian province home felt the same way. In fact, the only people not feeling that way were the idiotic jerks that caused our collective shame. They were the ones using the Canuck’s loss to Boston in the Stanley Cup final as an excuse to wreck havoc on downtown Vancouver.

“You can’t cure stupid.”

We went into the night holding our collective breathe, hoping the sad scenario of the 1994 riot, after a similar Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers, would not repeat itself. The Olympics had given us hope that we could be placed on a world stage without burning it to the ground. But, as one police spokesperson said, “You can’t cure stupid!” Sadly, it proved to be true. BC is a breathtakingly beautiful corner of the world, but we definitely have our quota of stupid people, and last Wednesday, they all came onto the streets of Vancouver.

You’ve probably seen news footage of the riot and, if you were disgusted, I get it. I was too. But there’s another part of the story that also has to be told. To be honest, I’m not sure if it’s a happy ending or an even sadder one. I’d like to hear what you think, but bear with me for another minute or so.

Throw the Face”Book” at them

Even though it appeared that we had learned nothing in the 17 years since the last riot, there was one significant difference between 1994 and last week’s debacle. This year, it went viral. Much of the mayhem was captured by photo or video. Soon, it was posted online. And that’s when something surprising happened. For most of our history as social animals, there is not much we can do when some of our herd runs amok. There are reams of research on the psychology of mobs, but one of the common themes is a feeling of invincibility that comes from being part of a faceless, mindless crowd bent on destruction. Most times, there is no response or retribution for individual perpetrators of mob violence. They get off Scott free. But not this time. The mob that trashed Vancouver may have been mindless, but they certainly weren’t faceless.

The next morning, a Facebook page was started by the Vancouver police. They asked anyone with photos or videos of criminals to post them for identification. Within a few hours, the page had captured over 50,000 “likes.” Within a few days, the police had over a million pictures and 1000 hours of video uploaded. As people were recognized, they were tagged so police could follow up with charges. The Insurance Corporation of BC offered police use of their facial detection software and crooner Michael Buble, who also hails from Vancouver, even launched a newspaper campaign asking for people to turn the guilty in through social media.

Social Justice or Virtual Vigilantes?

On hearing that, I felt that finally, justice was being served. We, the often-voiceless majority of law-abiding citizens, could do our part to right the wrongs. But, were we really interested in justice, or did we just want revenge? Is there any difference between the two? One blogger, Dave.ca, said “report the rioters out of civic duty..or revenge..either is fine.” Is it? If we are holding onto moral high ground, should we rally and become a virtual “lynch” mob? It’s brand new territory to chart and I’m personally unsure about which is the right path to take.

Let me give you one example. One of the rioters is a provincial water polo athlete and he was soon identified online. His name was made public. His father is a doctor. Since his son’s crime was made public, the father has had to suspend his practice and the family has had to move out of their home. Is this just for them? Other exposed rioters have been subjected to violent threats and the comment strings are riddled with utterings that are in contention with the riot itself for sheer stupidity.

When I started this column, I was convinced it was going to be a bad news, good news story, where social media would play the role of the redeemer. As I did further research on the aftermath, it seems that it’s a bad news, good news..possibly worse news story.

Much as I’d like to think differently, I’m not sure mob rule, whether it’s pursuing mindless violence, or mindless revenge, can ever be a good thing. Social media has a way of exposing all that is human, at scale, and at velocity – warts and all. How do we handle this new accountability, this new immediate transparency into the dark things we’ve always kept tucked away?

Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Mediapost’s Search Insider June 23, 2011