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 wreak 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. B.C. 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 scot 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,, 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. 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?

17 comments about "The Vancouver Riot Social Media Backlash: Justice Or Revenge?".
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  1. Michael Keranen from American Honda, June 23, 2011 at 10:54 a.m.

    I always like your writings but here I think you are off the mark. A lynch mob or vigilante is taking the law into their own hands and becoming judge, jury and executioner. By using social media to identify and roundup these "thugs", we are merely using the power of our community to bring these hooligans to justice. I think it is terrific.

  2. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, June 23, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.

    Good questions, Gord. Re social media redemption, what about coverage of the thousands of volunteers who helped clean up after the riot?

  3. Robert Kahns from MarineMax, June 23, 2011 at 10:57 a.m.

    It is very true that social media has allowed justice to prevail when criminals thought they could get away with it. As you noted, the problem now becomes the revenge mob who wants to impart vigilante 'social mob justice'.

    Social media is a great tool to be used aiding in the capture of criminals. But after that, let justice work its cousre through fines, imprisonment, return of stolen goods, etc.

    I am sure the case of the polo player is not the only one where now the 'social mob' has become just as 'stupid' as the physical mob. I don't know if we'll ever totally cure stupid.

  4. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, June 23, 2011 at 11:02 a.m.


    I'm not sure it's as simple as that. Social media exposure can create and fuel a true lynch mob. This is not as black and white as you make it out to's a very dirty grey.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, June 23, 2011 at 11:08 a.m.

    There is more damage done by mob rule than years of building or fixing can do and can erase the pluses of "social" or in this case, anti-social media on a dime. (Not that mob rule is new; it's now on steroids.) There are multi-billion corporations, complexes and people which are gathering forces to influence huge populations to think and act out of a rational behavior. People are being trained not to be able to think for themselves, but count on other people to make their decisions and opinions for them. I really hope those really super intelligent people can also find the path to balance.

  6. Richard L from LW, June 23, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.

    I agree with Michael. With the exception of some idiots who show up at rioters houses to extract revenge, I expect justice will be served far better in this case than in say 1994. Pervasive use of camera phones and social media for identification simply takes what the police would otherwise love to be able to do and passes it back to citizens. Police simply can't witness every illegal act and identify each rioter. Why shouldn't technology and social media help citizens to keep order in a civil society. Clearly it should then be up to the police and courts to extract "revenge".

    Hopefully, the next riot doesn't happen because the mob realizes they are actually identifiable individuals not a "faceless, mindless crowd bent on destruction".

  7. Neil Sanderson from, June 23, 2011 at 3:43 p.m.

    How can posting photos, legally obtained, of people performing criminal acts in public places, with the intention of identifying those people, be anything but helpful to society?

    It's false equivalency to say that this caused someone to suspend their business and move out of their home. If that person was threatened, then let's blame the people making the threats (and do what we can to help the police find them). The vigilantes are just as stupid as the ones who rioted and looted.

  8. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, June 23, 2011 at 4:47 p.m.

    I would think the people who used social media to threaten left a footprint or trail as evident as the rioters who were captured on social media. To deny the power of the medium because it can be abused requires a community response that doesn't let this behavior pass. That's what used to fuel riots, and, left unchecked, would allow backlash threats to thrive as well.

  9. John Rasco from RefreshWeb, June 23, 2011 at 5:04 p.m.

    As always, a thoughtful article and shining with transparency. I agree with Michael that identifying the criminals is an excellent use of social media--society defending itself. The people who threatened the doctor and his family are nothing short of terrorists. Sadly, the vigilantes who are net savvy are not much different than those swayed by the mob mentality to commit violent acts. Violence begets violence. This isn't stupidity, exactly, but truly it is the evil lurking in our hearts that anonymity allows to boil up to the surface.

  10. Dorota Umeno from The Viridis Company LLC, June 23, 2011 at 6:04 p.m.

    I agree with Neil, the rioters - like the polo player whose family was impacted - should have considered the consequences of their actions prior to doing what they did. I think that the "social media thugs" who responded with threats are also in the wrong, but on balance I believe that this project is a good thing. Maybe future rioters will think twice before destroying public property if they are made aware that they will not be able to hide in an anonymous crowd and avoid accountability for their criminal behavior.

  11. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, June 23, 2011 at 6:38 p.m.

    Fascinating comments..splitting on both sides of the issue. As I said in the column, I'm really struggling with this myself. I still feel this isn't black and white and there are "unintended consequences" that are still to make themselves known, but it's a fascinating experiment in social justice. Thanks all for weighing in..on both sides!

  12. Ken Headrick from Microsoft, June 23, 2011 at 8:13 p.m.

    While I am not fond of the impact to the waterpolo player's family nor how aggressive the vigilante response is here I am ok that there has been a big lesson learned and message sent about the power of social media and phones to collect evidence and this should make all criminals pause. I think there is a second social impact. In small towns (maybe more in the past than the present but I can't comment since I have never lived in a small town), the fact that the whole town knows about someone's crime carries perhaps more weight and more impact on the criminal than the penalties invoked by the justice system. That is probably going to be the case here and I am ok with that part of social justice as well.

  13. Jimm Fox from One Market Media, June 23, 2011 at 8:20 p.m.

    Gord, don't we all have an obligation to report a crime that we have witnessed - especially if we're in possession of information or evidence that can help apprehend the perpetrators?

    I see no gray zone here at all.

  14. Mike Bloxham from Magid, June 23, 2011 at 10:39 p.m.

    Sadly, the power of social media to aid the judicial process by identifying perpetrators in such circumstances is likely to diminish over time.
    As schemes tactics like those employed by the police in BC become more commonplace, those determined to riot and wreak havoc will mask their faces in the same way rioters in countries where the use of close circuit TVs and video teams among the riot police are now the norm. "Casual" or incidental rioters who are swept up in the moment will still be vulnerable, but the hardcore trouble-makers will adapt to the threat of the camera.
    As for the unfortunate families who suffer through association with the actions of the mindless mob, the nature of their suffering seems to be no different from the pre-social web years, but the scale and speed with which they manifest is that much greater.

  15. Anshuman Misra from ICICI Bank Ltd, June 24, 2011 at 6:48 a.m.

    This shows both the power and the brute force of social media. Justice should be 'Just' else it loses out in the long run. Great post Gord. Extremely thought provoking and with much wider ramifications.

  16. Barb Newman, June 24, 2011 at 4:26 p.m.

    I too have been pondering the incident. I'm not torn on this topic though. The way I see it, this social media method of identifying suspects is the 2011 version of the Crime Stoppers program with improvements. I've been told that Crime Stoppers pays for tips - mostly to criminals anonymously turning in their "friends" (other criminals). The social media crime stoppers use their Facebook accounts to name names and they are quick to call out anyone who hides behind a screen name. They sleuth out and cross-reference the suspects from different sources of pictures and video with great tenacity. And they aren't looking for rewards. It's a another way to pick up a cyber broom and sweep-up after the mess.

    As for harassing the suspects in the real world, that's taking it too far and should not be tolerated.

  17. Brad Stewart from Molecule Inc., June 24, 2011 at 7:25 p.m.

    The water polo player's dad is either really smart or has an amazing lawyer. During his son's sentencing, the need to close his practice will count as a mitigating factor against his son's sentence (this is called "natural punishment" in judicial circles). So, in the end, all the vigilante justice will just serve the Defence at the sentencing hearings. Then the media will report on the lenient sentence without mentioning the natural punishment factors, and the yahoos will feel even more need to exact social punishment, and so on.

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