Crowdsourced justice and public shaming
Social media is proving to be judge, jury and executioner for rioters
Ritualized humiliation of criminals and socalled deviants has been exacted for centuries. From placing a thief in stocks in the square to branding deviants’ clothing to erecting embarrassing signs on the lawns of offenders, public humiliation has been used in an attempt to inflict vengeance and deter recidivism.
Following last week’s riot in Vancouver, two trends — social media and crowdsourcing — have combined to take this public shaming to a new level that amounts to a life sentence.
Historical forms of public humiliation were local, such as posting the names of cheque bouncers in stores. More recently, pub- lic shaming broadcast offenders’ transgressions to a wider audience via newspapers, television and websites.
In this modern incarnation, thousands of citizens are using social media to post hundreds of thousands of images and videos of people at the Vancouver riot in an attempt to “name and shame” the alleged perpetrators.
There is much debate about the effectiveness of public shaming as a form of deterrence. Publicly collected videos and photos were used as a principal law enforcement tool for the first time following the 1994 Stanley Cup riot. Images collected by police resulted in 365 individuals being identified and over 100 charges laid.
Since then, photographs and videos have become a staple in the apprehension and conviction of people involved in riots.
The difference this time is one of amplitude. Dozens of websites and Facebook pages, along with thousands of Flickr photos and YouTube videos, have quickly emerged to publicly shame the alleged offenders. Viewers are urged to identify the rioters for law enforcement officials.
Premier Christy Clark has promised that rioters “won’t be able to live in anonymity.” Police have encouraged citizens to email images and information to them directly and privately. Journalists have expressed concern that bystanders may be labelled as rioters and vigilante justice could be inflicted. Civilliberty supporters and social media pundits have raised issues of privacy. All acknowledge that this genie is not going back into the bottle.
Welcome to the brave new world of crowdsourced justice. “Crowdsourcing” was coined in 2006 by Jeff Howe in Wired magazine. He defined it as “the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call.”
In the case of the 2011 Vancouver riot, the designated agents are journalists and the police; the crowd is comprised of amateur photographers, videographers, bloggers and social media participants.
In the past five years, crowdsourcing has revolutionized fields including product development, design, marketing and government. For example, Linux and Wikipedia have leveraged cost-free crowdsourcing to develop, respectively, a globally accepted software platform and an online encyclopedia.
Today, social media combined with public outrage has redefined justice. In this case of crowdsourced justice, the crowd is both judge and jury. The right to a fair trial is preceded or even replaced by public naming and shaming.
Will the self-correcting nature of crowdsourcing, which gives us confidence in the accuracy of Wikipedia information, also ultimately sort out useful evidence from inflammatory hyperbole in the case of identifying riot perpetrators? It is too soon to tell.
In a chilling effect of this new crowdsourced justice, a conviction means an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole. Many of those involved in the riots were inebriated and immature 20-somethings. In a reckless moment, their reputations and lives were changed forever.
As one blogger states, “Public shaming thru the use of social media and blogging shall place them into a world that is engraved into history. It shall be chiselled into the hard stone of the Internet and last eternally.”
Today, your digital reputation defines you. Reference checks start with Google and Facebook. The thousands of photos and videos tagged with people’s names will define their digital reputations. Crowdsourced justice will ensure that hundreds, if not thousands, will receive life sentences. People will lose jobs. People will lose scholarships. People will lose friends. People will lose the respect and trust of others.
The lesson learned in Vancouver is that in a world of crowdsourced justice and public shaming, punishment is swift, certain and severe. Once convicted, you can run but you can never hide.