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Judged in the court of Facebook

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Screenshot from Facebook

Move aside, VPD: Facebook is not just a helper in bringing Vancouver rioters to justice, but is becoming a virtual courtroom as well.

Since the Stanley Cup riot, numerous pages such as Facebook riot pics have posted photos of people smashing windows, tipping over urinals and brawling with police. There has also been a move for identification and public shaming of the people who were shown taking part in the mayhem. 

Brock Anton is a Facebook user who made national headlines for posting incriminating evidence of himself on burning cars during the riots.  There is now a public Facebook page devoted to shaming him---there for strangers to post hateful messages about his criminal acts. Thousands of Facebook users, ranging from senior citizens to high school students, have left taunts and insults on the page. Nathan Kotylak, a water polo all-star athlete with a scholarship to the University of Calgary, was  attacked on Facebook after photos emerged of him lighting a police cruiser on fire. 

Friends and defenders of the rioters pleaded with the administrator to take the page down yesterday, only to be bombarded with hateful attacks themselves -- within hours, they took down their posts, while the hate posts continued to stream in. 

Facebook and Twitter are watching

"Over the last 10 years, I've been thinking Orwell got it wrong," said Peter Chow-White, an SFU communications professor specializing in social media. "There's not going to be this oppressive Big Brother eye watching us. We give out the minutiae of our lives for free on Twitter and Facebook."  

While photographs and video footage posted by the public (and often by the perpretators themselves) have been instrumental in bringing them to justice, Chow-White said that tools like Facebook risk putting ordinary people on the same playing field as powerful politicians and celebrities whose lives are built around public exposure. 

"We're used to politicians, celebrities, professional athletes living in public --that's just part of the extraordinary wages they garner," he said. "But everyday people are not used to living in public. That's not part of the deal." 

 "I've seen at least one report of someone being fired already because they they had pictures at the riot. With social media, there's guilt by association. What's removed is any sort of due process. For people to be fired right away because they saw you in a photo...what they were doing was not done in the workplace."

Breakdown of community

Alexandra Samuel, social media director at Emily Carr University, wrote a blog post in the Harvard Business Review website about the disturbing trend of citizen surveillance, with people on Twitter and Facebook calling on the public to identify criminals in the riot. 

"I was deeply disturbed to see the community of social media enthusiasts embrace a new role: not in observation, not in citizen journalism, but in citizen surveillance," she wrote. 

She said that while documenting with photographs and video are an integral part of social media, citizens cross the line when they begin to post footage with the explicit intention of identifying people. 

screenshot from Harvard Business Review blog

Samuel wrote that while it may be constructive to identify someone involved in car burnings during the riots, there are many cases where social media is used wrongfully:

"I am much less comfortable when 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 Vancouver riots, Samuel said, show how social media can be used not just to create a sense of community and public safety, but also to destroy it. 

"What social media is for — or what it can be for, if we use it to its fullest potential — is to create community. And there is nothing that will erode community faster, both online and off, than creating a society of mutual surveillance."

What are the options?

Given how social media is integrated into people's lives, many of the individuals identified during the Vancouver riots will not have the option of simply erasing their Facebook and Twitter accounts in order to avoid public humiliation.
These tools are so much a part of daily life that people can no longer separate their private lives from their public ones online.
"Increasingly, for the younger generation, not having a life online is similar to not having a social life, period," said Chow-White. He said that over the last decade, notions of privacy have been eroded through social media, and that the Vancouver riots show the effects of living in a world in which everyone is a potential watchdog.
"What we're seeing is the cost and consequences of that -- a life being lived in public."

(36) Comments

Sean Bickerrton June 17th 2011 | 11:11 AM

Social media was used to expose police brutality in Toronto during the G8, exposed oppression in 3rd world nations, and has caught polluters in the act. It's more than appropriate it is now being used to document violence, assault, stabbings, attacks on our own police force, burning of police cars we will have to pay to replace, and the destruction of many small businesses, including the tossing of a molotov cocktail into a coffee shop!

There is no right to privacy when committing assault on a police officer, or lighting a police cruiser on fire, or when smashing the window of a store and stealing makeup and purses or manikens. 

It was Vancouver that was attacked last night, and those of us who live here will make sure those responsible are held to account and think twice before ever, ever doing anything so violent in our city again.

And that will build a better community, which is a great use of social media.

Jaye Sunsurn June 17th 2011 | 11:11 AM

Turning off the Social Media Water Faucet now would require a Herculean effort which would be all for naught. It really is the Pandora's box. People will be identified, and its unfortunate that a persons actions will have implications beyond the legal realm (not just with the riot but for anything), yes it will cloud the judgement of future employers, it will cloud their social relationships. It can cause ripple effects to not just them either but his or her family and social circle.  But this is the type of world we live in today. Society will have to relax particular moral standards when eventually we get "caught" doing stupid shit (or having an unpopular opinion), because no one is immune to doing stupid shit (or having an unpopular opinion), what actions will be considered forgivable will be a constantly moving target, and really dependent upon the context of the time.

Actions will always have concequences, and society at large has to learn to deal with the greater responsibility of forgiveness and punishment, where it is warranted. But its early days yet, and it will take a while for society to really catch up to the new paradigms of the world we live in.

Natalie Lapointe June 17th 2011 | 11:11 AM

The events of the last 3 days have brought out the best/worst/best again of the people of Vancouver. 

While the public shaming is very '1984' - I agree with Sean's comment above. We are living in a brave new world of social media. There's almost no better way to incite in people the desire to do the right thing than the possibility of being judged openly by their peers. 

I bet this incident will have lasting effects as a deterrent for this kind of behaviour in the future. 

It's not just Big Brother watching -- it's your family, your friends, your neighbours...  

Aaron Anderson June 17th 2011 | 11:11 AM

You are correct, social media was created to "community". And the "community" is banning together to try and identify as many of those who are at fault as possible because this "community" wants to see swift justice. Nothing would concern this "community" more than knowing that everyone got away with it. Sure, some individual's comments may be unappropriate and emotionally charged but this is how this "community" feels. 

Jojo June 17th 2011 | 11:11 AM

This is moronic! The author clearly embraces criminal activity! It's not mutually surveillance, it's mutual accountability. In this modern age of social media and everyone having a photographing device, no one is safe in the mob. You can't hide your identity in a raging riot anymore. You will be held accountable. It's not a bad thing.

David Banner June 17th 2011 | 11:11 AM

"Disturbingly, there has also been a move for identification and public shaming of the people who were shown taking part in the mayhem. "

Those people need to be identified and shamed.  You have people that have absolutely no respect for other peoples property.  This isn't people in the middle east rioting for freedom, these are a bunch of idiots who go through life thinking there are no consequences and they can do what they want.

Perhaps if enough of them get named/shamed/prosecuted, future people will take note.

While I agree that taking pictures of people engaged in lawful activities and attempting to shame them because you don't agree with it (abortion, gay pride, whatever) is wrong, naming and shaming criminals is not.  Too often the majority of these people get away with this kind of destruction and nothing happens to them. 

Worse, those that attempt to stop them are often brutalized themselves.


juechi June 17th 2011 | 12:12 PM

Hi Jojo, Thanks for your opinion, but I'm not embracing criminal activity (I don't believe I've expressed any opinion in this article). Of course the rioters should be persecuted, but what's questionable is having a public shaming page where random strangers declare that the criminals (in many cases, teenagers) should be beaten up, or worse, raped in jail. 

What we're highlighting, though, is the danger of immediate, sudden judgements and public shaming without due process, as Peter Chow-White said. Also, what if this kind of "identify the criminal" action was used for "identify the anti-Harper demonstrator" and "identify the woman going to an abortion clinic" tactics? 

In Japan, kids in elementary school (Grade 6) have committed suicide over classmates leaving cruel comments on their website, and while it wasn't Facebook in that case, the reality is that what happens online often crosses over into real life.

The article is simply meant to make people think about their intentions when making damning comments about someone on social media, or jumping to conclusions about a stranger based on a photograph.


sf June 17th 2011 | 1:13 PM

I think the references to social surveillance and Orwell are interesting and relevant. 

Instead of Orwell, a more apt description might be to Jeremy Bentham's Pantopiticon. The idea of knowingly being under constant surveillance without knowing exactly when you are being observed leads to a certain degree of self and social surveillance.

Vancouver Justice June 17th 2011 | 1:13 PM

If your dumb enought to do the crime, then you should be prepared to do the time!

Michael Watkins June 17th 2011 | 1:13 PM

Another way of looking at social media and living one's life "on-line" is to draw a comparison between today's digital growing-up on-line with growing up in a small town or a tight knit community.

When I was a kid we lived in a small community and if someone did something untoward the community knew about it. That the entire community would learn of potential bad action acts as a limiting self-check for most social humans. Maybe in our mega cities some lack that limiting devide.

If the rioters were presented with a mental dialog box:

"You are about to commit a crime(s) that will be fillmed by thousands and may lead to your arrest, possibly losing your job, your standing in the community, punishment from your parents, fines, being ridiculed by your peers and friends. 

Do you want to proceed?


(OK is followed by a confirmation dialog)

Are you REALLY sure you want to screw up your life? 


(CANCEL in both cases is followed by a next steps dialog)

Good Choice. Now head home immediately and take as many of your friends with you that you can quickliy convince.  GO

... anyway ...

There will no doubt be more bad postings by unthinking individuals but to be honest I am having a very hard time condemning those who simply out perpetrators. Yes, grudgingly I have to admit they shouldn't do it on-line in public -  they should submit them to the police with as much information as they can and let justice take its course.

Certainly I have no issues whatsoever with the submission of photos and videos to the police to be used as evidence and if the evidence has an identification to go along with it, so much the better. Reporting criminal behaviour / providing evidence of same is a civic duty in my books.

Let me also admit that I chuckled in a satisfied manner earlier today when I saw some Facebook postings identifying some individuals. At the time I looked at the photos I wasn't thinking of the age of the accused (one of the  accused was lighting a gas tank of a police cruiser on fire... damning evidence to be sure). What struck me was that I felt satisfied that something would be done about many of the crimes that were committed that night.

Yes, I may be wrong for gaining satisfaction from those images and identification, but honestly I don't feel that bad about it. 

The people who chose to take part in the riot did so with absolutely no expectation of privacy. Thousands upon thousands of cameras and cell phone/camera devices were present, in addition to police and media video tape rolling. Cameras were literally everywhere. Some were operated by those participating in the riot and criminal events while a great many others were observing (some cheering on, some not).

In this particular case the maxim "you got what was coming to you" does seem appropriate even if it doesn't fit our youth criminal legal statutes.

A bigger problem than the individual lives affected by having been caught on camera destroying our city is the question of "why?"

Why did it happen? Could the same thing happen in say Toronto? Or is what happened uniquely Vancouver for some as yet unidentified reason?

Can a positive come out of this? Perhaps understanding, and the consequences those convicted will face, will help lead to a noticable turning point.

Kit June 17th 2011 | 1:13 PM

No one captured in a photo who is innocent - and there were many - will be fired.  If someone was fired right away, it was because the photo showed him/her committing a crime. I don't see anything wrong with that.    

If you have proof that an innocent person was fired, I'd like to see it.   

JBowman June 17th 2011 | 1:13 PM

Identifying suspects is different than publically harrassing them.

Social media should be used for identification of those who may be involved with a crime, but people need to remember to stop there. Unless someone is caught in the act, they should not be assumed guilty for being near a publically committed crime.

That said, ensuring many rioters and vandals are prosecuted is a great thing. Police already post sketches and descriptions of suspects, so why not go public with photos of the violent crimes being committed? It saves tremendous resources for the police and helps protect the public.

miller June 17th 2011 | 2:14 PM

There's nothing 1984 and reverse-1984 about this; actually it's super old school! Just the modern equivalent of townspeople putting social misfits in the stocks and throwing tomatoes at them...

People have no confidence in the justice system doing anything about the misfits who perpetrated these acts during the riot so they are doing something about it themselves.


As far as I can tell the city's leadership are in total denial about what happened; they had the crime scenes cleaned up within a few hours, and they'll happily sweep the rest of it under the rug as well.


The powers that be go on the news and mantra  "vancouver is a worldclass city" and blame it all on "criminals and anarchists disquised as hockey fans"  Seriously??? They have no interest in justice; they just want what happened to go away, and they'll make it go away.  


Citizens sense this so they are acting using whatever means they have to seek a sense of justice that will never exist for real.  Nothing new about this; given the situation, it's human nature. 

Ax June 17th 2011 | 2:14 PM

Facebook's privacy settings will eventually required to be "locked down" as a default when signing up. To protect the stupid people. 


Reputation Management companies and web sites like willl proliferate.

phd phd June 17th 2011 | 3:15 PM

People just talk too much shit just because they could be anonymous. Just look at yourselves people, is this a fucking witch hunt or what?

I do agree that he deserves some punishments but it really isnt your business is it? What have you done so much to Vancouver that you think you deserve to talk so much shit about this kid?

Why did not any one stop him in the first place?

Please be concise about what you say and don't be fags.

JC June 17th 2011 | 3:15 PM

What was it Marge Simpson once said? "Maybe the police and courts have let us down, but as long as everyone is filming everything, justice will be served."

Ally June 17th 2011 | 3:15 PM
Posting private contact info of these people is what I see wrong with social media 'surveillance.' All Vancouverites want to do, in all their fury, is help the police. No one's thinking eye for an eye and heading after these people with knives or plotting how to steal their stuff. Methinks people are getting slightly too uncomfortable, but so far the police have not wrongfully arrested the innocent. Until that happens, I see no problem with shaming people stupid enough to participate in this event. But that's just me. Seems to me that people willing to infringe on others right and freedoms, through personal injury or property damage, are relinquishing some of their rights anyway.
Ally June 17th 2011 | 3:15 PM
phd phd wrote:

People just talk too much shit just because they could be anonymous. Just look at yourselves people, is this a fucking witch hunt or what?

I do agree that he deserves some punishments but it really isnt your business is it? What have you done so much to Vancouver that you think you deserve to talk so much shit about this kid?

Why did not any one stop him in the first place?

Please be concise about what you say and don't be fags.

Oh phd phd - here's the thing about an open gas tank and a match - the likelihood of a burning fireball of gasoline from such an act is a high possibility. So with that in mind - would you have approached him and begged or demanded he stop? It could get you killed in an instant!

Here's what the vast, vast majority of us have never 'done to Vancouver': light police cruisers on fire, smash windows of business and steal their merchandise, punch emergency workers in the face, flip over or burn other people's yeah, we have every right to be completely and totally outraged.

Grammar Hero June 17th 2011 | 3:15 PM
Vancouver Justice wrote:

If your dumb enought to do the crime, then you should be prepared to do the time!

If you're dumb enough to commit this kind of grammar crime, then you should be prepared to do the time! Back to 2nd grade for you!

Vancouver Justice June 17th 2011 | 4:16 PM

@Grammer Hero thinks they are funny and perfect too? Wow, the total package..........

So u never make typos right?


Vancouver Justice June 17th 2011 | 4:16 PM
Vancouver Justice wrote:

@Grammer Hero thinks they are funny and perfect too? Wow, the total package..........

So u never make typos right?



And YES I know its spelled GRAMMAR - I was being sarcastic.

Steve Vanden-Eykel June 17th 2011 | 5:17 PM
It's called "social contract", motherfuckers. Violate it at your peril. This isn't Big Brother creating a surveillance state with Facebook. This is a community using Facebook to stand up against the thugs. Fucking star athlete? Why am I not surprised, spoiled entitled asshole.
Steve Vanden-Eykel June 17th 2011 | 5:17 PM
To the moron calling this a witchhunt: Nothing wrong with witchhunts when you're dealing with actual witches. Hey, I got an idea...let's call it what it REALLY is: a rioterhunt! Kill all rioters!
Downtowner June 17th 2011 | 5:17 PM

Huh? Here we have a bunch of morons that commit senseless violence and are stupid enough to do it in daylight in front of a bunch of cameras. And the response of trying to identify them is condemned?

I think the very essence of community is being proud of it, defending it, and reacting against those who try and destroy it. I used to think Facebook/Twitter were mindless diversions. They may, in fact, be what saves our communities. If someone witnessed a crime in person, we'd want them to come forward to the police. If they recognize someone doing commiting a crime in a video online, they should come forward as well.

heavyboots June 17th 2011 | 6:18 PM

David Brin's sci-fi novel "Earth" and his non-fiction "The Transparent Society" explored this idea in the late '90's. A society where surveillance is ubiquitous and secrecy near-impossible. It will be interesting to see what happens now we are approaching some of the technological breaking points he predicted.

Nickie June 17th 2011 | 8:20 PM

OMG! Click it!!! XD

whitney June 17th 2011 | 9:21 PM

is this a conservative news source?

how typical of this city... when something forward-moving has taken place... there's some old minded, overly entitled conservative trying prevent things from happening.

old minded people standing up for rights of those in the wrong, when it's clearly getting in the way of progress. 

it's this frame of mind that has left us with a 3 lane lion's gate bridge and empty bike lanes.

god help us if the US defaults.



Jim Black June 18th 2011 | 12:00 AM

I can't understand why people are so happy about the idea of medieval community justice coming back. The risks of this kind of facebook vigilantism could be serious: innocent or misidentified people could lose their jobs or reputations simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We live in a society ruled by law - the criminal justice system is responsible for delivering justice, not us. If you have evidence or know the identity of a looter, report it to the police. Harassing people who may or may not be guilty is not part of living in a civil society.

juechi June 18th 2011 | 6:06 AM

No, we're definitely not conservative --- if you read our other stories you'd see we don't really fit that description.

Again, we're not condemning using Facebook to catch criminals so that they go to jail, pay fines, etc. What the article questions is the use of Facebook as a kind of punishment itself, via sites like "Brock Anton Sucks Dick" that serve no real purpose other than to shame him in public after he's been arrested.

You might say that this shaming is just the natural consequence of his actions, but it was disheartening to read some of the vicious comments directed by "good" citizens toward friends of the rioters or just random sympathizers who suggested their Facebook page was going too far. Again, what the article points out is that these methods may seem fair and well for the Vancouver riots, but there's the murky territory of what the public deems to be "just" and what isn't. 

Grace Wang, for example, was a Duke University student in 2008 who stepped in when she saw Chinese nationalists arguing and clashing with pro-Tibet protesters. Not taking sides, she tried to encourage dialogue. Naturally, some Chinese found her actions to be treacherous and posted her name and photos on the internet, as well as her parents' address in China, on those who were angry with Wang could vandalize her family's home (which they promptly did).

If you ask those guys, what they did was perfectly just, and the expected consequence of her actions in the public realm.

But who can judge whether someone like Wang is a "traitor" or just a citizen trying to step in to prevent a conflict? She did what she thought was right, but it turned out to be the wrong thing to do in the eyes of a certain public. It's why we find it questionable to use Facebook/other websites for the express purpose of identifying people and encouraging retribution. As Jim Black says above, harassing people who may or may not be guilty is not part of living in a civil society.

Hope that makes the point clearer.

huh?what?what'd you say? June 18th 2011 | 10:10 AM

C'mon people! lay off this kid! maybe he couldn't hear the Vancouver police reading the Riot Act because of the din, if that is the case, maybe his lawyer can read it for him, it goes something like this.." Her Majesty, the Queen...blah,blah,blah.." and further on they add.."paragraph 68 ( of the Riot Act) provides for life imprisionment should the proclamation be ignored.."maybe we can contribute some money to buy him a hearing aid.