Crowd­sourced jus­tice and pub­lic sham­ing

So­cial me­dia is prov­ing to be judge, jury and ex­e­cu­tioner for ri­ot­ers

Times Colonist - - Comment - DAVID FINCH, SHARON MCIN­TYRE and KELLY SUND­BERG David Finch and Sharon McIn­tyre are as­sis­tant pro­fes­sors of mar­ket­ing at the Bis­sett School of Busi­ness at Mount Royal Univer­sity in Cal­gary, where Kelly Sund­berg is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of jus­tice studie

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.

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