Canucks Riots: Turn your neighbours in?

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Yesterday, I wrote about the narrative of division that’s going around in the traditional media and social media following the Vancouver Riots.  Jasmin wrote about the standard leap-to-blame-the-anarchists reaction that also came up.

But now I’m getting kind of creeped out by the digital witch hunt that’s taking place, with a huge amount of websites and facebook groups that were created overnight, dedicated to taking pictures of the stupidity that happened in downtown Vancouver and effectively crowdsourcing the identification. In the end, it kind of feels like a call towards digital naming and shaming, or an online rush to name names and turn your neighbours in.

Never mind the fact that these websites are replete with horribly racist, sexist, ableist, and other kinds of disgusting comments about the people pictured in them – many of them, of course, pictured doing rather illegal things – but the very nature of an open website where anyone can post an image — with no restrictions that it actually be of the Vancouver riots — and people will clamor trying to scour Facebook and Tumblr and so on, trying to ‘identify’ people that they think they can see.  There are a number of images posted that have absolutely nothing to do with the Vancouver riots: I saw, on one Facebook group, a set of photos from the Chinese repression of the Uyghur riots in recent memory and the Jasmine uprisings in Beijing.

Potentially worse is that people named in stories or on the internet may not have been the people in the photos; it may not even be the case that they were there.

This kind of online witch hunt is dangerous.  Yes, there should probably be justice done – but let’s leave it to the police to do that.  Even then, there’s problems – Jasmin rightly noted that the police tend to leap towards blaming “anarchists,” maybe without sometimes checking who it is that they’ve actually arrested.  I’d wager that this attempt towards naming your neighbour (to be a Justice Hero Superstar!) doesn’t exactly do any good towards taking apart the destructive and divisive narratives of racism and sexism and so on.

It gets even more troubling when you consider that there are a host of laws that are aimed at ensuring that there’s actually something considered justice to be administered. In particular, there’s the idea that people are technically innocent until proven guilty – and I’ll strongly say that an HD photo of you lighting a car on fire is strong evidence of such – but you still deserve to get the chance towards a fair trial.

In particular, there’s a little something called the Youth Criminal Justice Act that prohibits anyone from naming someone underage who is charged with a crime.  It’s an attempt to allow people, who, in the innocence of age, do really stupid things, to have a life after they make amends.  It doesn’t apply if you’re charged with adult crimes that would result in an adult sentence, and so on.  It’s also why you hear all these media reports that “the suspect could not be named because he is underage.”

Well, when you have a digital witch hunt or an online naming spree, these protections of justice don’t seem to apply.  I was really troubled today to see James Moore, the Minister of Canadian Heritage, post a story that named a 17-year old suspect.  The story explicitly says that the accused is a member of an under-18 water polo team. But at the same time, there’s no real evidence presented that the person named is the person in the photo. Here’s a screen grab of the Minister’s facebook page. I’ve blurred the kid’s name because it could be against the law to publish it:

Here’s the relevant portion of the Youth Criminal Justice Act:


Protection of Privacy of Young Persons
Identity of offender not to be published

110.(1) Subject to this section, no person shall publish the name of a young person, or any other information related to a young person, if it would identify the young person as a young person dealt with under this Act.

And here’s a few links to news media that are refusing to publish the kid’s name, provided that the two stories are the same. Note that the VPD is claiming that they don’t think that there will be any ‘vigilante justice,’ though the commenters on Moore’s facebook page seem to be cheering for exactly that.

Imagine if the young person Moore named turned out to be not the person in the photo? The site that Moore links to doesn’t appear to be a traditional news organization, with requirements and ethical obligations for verifying sources and names and allegations.

Online witch hunting is effectively using social media for state surveillance.  You are being asked to turn in your neighbours if you think you see them. It’s ridiculous. And it throws the whole justice system into disrepute.

Moore says:

“All I did was say “Meet [redacted]. Not against any act.”


“Social media has its evils, this is among its good”

I don’t know if I agree with him. We’re surveilled by the state a lot already; with CCTV everywhere and the VPD and Toronto Police Service videotaping anyone who dares attend a protest. This riot wasn’t a protest, no, but to ask you to name names and allow the creation of a system of vigilante crowdsourced identification? And for a Minister of the Crown to name names, in contravention of the law?

I’m not too sure if that’s the best idea. Especially from a political party that wants to be the party of justice.

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Kevin is a cooperator, an always-student, and passionate about the arts. As a principal of the Incipe Cooperative, Kevin works with colleagues in a workers' co-op offering services for advocacy and nonprofit organizations. He's passionate about education policy, having been through twenty some-odd years of schooling and still thinking it changes the world. He also thinks that art changes the world, and he works with Art for Impact to celebrate art's power for social change. A Vancouver born and raised resident who is exiled from Toronto, he constantly loses umbrellas and probably rants too much.

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17 thoughts on “Canucks Riots: Turn your neighbours in?”

  1. I think the so-called witch hunt is more of a round-up than a celebration of the wicker man. And if you don`t think that was an organized attack against Vancouver`s downtown core, you`re dismissing a lot of evidence.

    1. I have yet to see any evidence that this was, as you put it, “an organized attack on Vancouver’s downtown core.”

      Especially given how good police are at infiltrating anarchist groups (see Toronto G20), how come there weren’t pre-emptive arrests?

  2. Politicians shouldn’t be so reckless. Oh James Moore. But there is such furor over what happened, that for the regular tax-paying public, this is part of the fallout. All Vancouverites are sick to death over what happened, and it seems as though the mob mentality that swept up the rioters is sweeping up the public, who are rightfully outraged at the violence and images they have not been able to turn away from since that night.

    In reality, a Facebook status update shaming a rioter is inadmissible in court, as will be each of the shaming websites, so the idea that this is vigilante justice will not fly in the long term. Police are asking people to submit names directly to them, not to post them on these websites – and these direct tips are the ones they are following. The social media element is where videos/images are being posted as proof of wrongdoing, however many of these pics and vids were submitted direct to police as well. And this method of police work is no different than it’s ever been.

    I get the further repercussions as far as job searching later in life, when a Google search turns up your name as at the very least attempting to blow up a police car – but the bottom line is, if the kid had not been there, had not done this (and that kid, specifically, has turned himself into police), he’d have nothing to worry about.

    1. I understand that this is part of the fall-out, certainly.

      But as for Facebook not being inadmissible in court? ICBC regularly uses Facebook statuses and photos as evidence of insurance fraud, they’ve been used as evidence in divorce proceedings, and so on. And recent court decisions have expanded the term “publish” to mean more than just dead-tree or TV… even bloggers have to be careful about publishing libellous information.

      The problem, in my mind, is the uncontrollable nature of this online witch hunt – with Photoshop, I could put a picture of you in the riots online and name you. And then what would happen?

      1. Not to worry, sir – I have an alibi 😉

        I totally agree that it can get out of hand, but so far there have been no reports of police arresting the wrongfully accused. So I would say that until stories such as that come to light, those who did this to the downtown core should be very nervous – their own FRIENDS and even their family are sharing their names, and not just with police, but with social media. That infers that NO ONE is proud of any of these individuals – and in some cases, it’s not a bad thing when overwhelming public opinion can affect justice. For this, I side with the whistle blowers.

        Personally, I’ve never been more furious at humanity. The complexities of horrible dictatorships are exponentially worse than what occurred downtown on Wednesday night – NO question – but never in my life have I been so devastated to watch things this awful unfold for no reason at all. Not money, power, justice – just for the hell of it! Many people feel quite similarly. And with the reports, and people caught on video admitting they were going to riot regardless of a win or a loss, and the photographs of people wearing balaclavas and shirts reading “Just Here For The Riots,” not to mention the guys caught on TV cameras wearing shirts labelling every single neighbourhood in Surrey (a Vancouverites dream is to place blame on Surrey for everything bad in this town, which you’re probably aware of!) it does seem more than just circumstantial that whether the mob would have been this big, even with a win this would have occurred.

        On Facebook, status updates claimed they couldn’t wait for next year and hoped for another Cup run so they could riot. Whether you use that in court or not, it fully implies that it WILL happen again. And how can you stop it? With the judicial system it may not be possible, so there seems to be an added element of outraged citizens doing anything they can to bring these people to any form of justice they can manage.

        1. I’m glad you have an alibi 😉

          I agree with a lot of what you write; especially about the geographic-blame-game. I ‘m still not convinced that vigilante Facebook justice is the best idea, though.

  3. There should “probably” be justice done? Ya think? The public are outraged at what they perceive to be an assault on their community but that was the intention of the rioters who brought gasoline to the event, no?

    This isn’t a witch hunt. No one that I’ve learned of is suggesting anyone other than the police apprehend these people. That would be vigilantism which is totally wrong.

    1. Yet posting people’s names, places of work, phone numbers, and so forth – whether or not they were actually in the photo, never mind naming suspects who were underage, in contravention of the YCJA – that’s all fair game and not vigilantism?

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