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Social media brings out the snitch in all of us

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Twitter and Facebook can be powerful tools for reporting on important events, including the uprisings in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — but they can also become a powerful tool for surveillance as well, as the police and government authorities in Egypt and other countries have shown. What happens when we turn these tools of public surveillance on one another? We got a glimpse of that in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Wednesday, after the final game in the NHL playoffs, when citizens started posting photos of themselves rioting in the streets — and it’s a glimpse of a future some would rather not see.

As the riots were occurring, with hundreds of people reportedly injured and cars and buildings burned and looted, photos of those involved in the incidents started showing up on Twitter and on other social networks such as Facebook and Tumblr. Soon people were collecting them and asking for others to contribute — both on a Tumblr blog dedicated to the riots and on a Facebook page called “Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos” — and others were passing photos around on Twitter asking others to identify the people in them.

The local police also asked for help in identifying rioters and other lawbreakers. There’s no doubt that all of those crowdsourced photos would certainly help in that effort (police asked on Twitter for those with photos to hang onto them), especially since Facebook recently launched a facial-recognition service that auto-tags photos based on the suggestions of other users, something that critics have said is an invasion of privacy.

This vision of a future in which we all surveill and report on one another — the social media version of philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison made of mirrors that allows everyone to see what their neighbor is doing — doesn’t strike everyone as the kind of future they want to live in. Alexandra Samuel, writing in the Harvard Business Review, said that she sees this kind of Little Brother–style activity as a breach of the promise of social media, which is supposed to help form a community. She said:

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.

But others argue that the kind of behavior seen in the aftermath of the Vancouver riots is a natural outgrowth of how social media functions. Open-web advocate and political consultant David Eaves wrote in response to Samuels that he sees the use of Twitter and Facebook to identify criminals as a natural step, although not necessarily one that we might want to see in every case. But what is the alternative, he asks: governments setting laws for what can be posted and what can’t?

In the end, Samuels is right that social media helps us create or enhance community — but what that community decides to do with those tools is a lot harder to control or determine. A great example is 4chan, the anarchic online forum that has given birth to dozens of Internet memes: The same community that can attack a defenseless 11-year-old girl and subject her to public ridicule can also marshal an incredible amount of effort to identify someone who tortured an animal and bring them to justice. Is that vigilantism? Perhaps.

The reality is that social media is an expression of society’s mores and desires in real time — another example of what Om has called the alive web. Sometimes those desires are good, and sometimes they are not. The same force that compelled people to post photos of suspected looters also convinced some to put together a crowdsourced effort to clean up the streets after the riots. Social media is just a tool, and it can cut in both directions. The sooner we learn that, the better.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Andy Roberts

15 Responses to “Social media brings out the snitch in all of us”

  1. I agree with this, Facebook is really a powerful instrument for surveillance. And not just that. Some criminals are found in Facebook. Some graphical sketch doesn’t look exactly it should be, so some investigations, Facebook was a part of it. And yeah, my husband, he never met his father for 27 years, but thanks to Facebook he will meet his father finally this December.

  2. Fletcher

    If the price of our interconnectedness is that rioters lose their anonymity–which is what enables mob mentality–I will happily pay that price. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

    Anonymity is also what enables the mob mentality on 4chan that led to the “beating up” of little what’s-her-face. Real anonymity has been replaced by virtual anonymity, it would seem. If you can’t take the heat, don’t go in the kitchen and say you’re going to put a gun in people’s mouths and make a brain slushie.

    This is the future: we are all connected, and one way or another, we’ll learn to live together. It’s going to happen, whether we like it or not. And I consider myself a misanthrope!

    If you’re worried about your privacy and/or freedom, you always have the freedom to NOT go out in public and commit crimes or embarrass yourself.

  3. Mathew, it’s all very well to say that social media are just a tool, and that like any tool they can used for a variety of purposes, good and bad. That’s clear enough to anyone who uses them. But at some point you have to look beyond the mere utility and actually examine the uses to which the tools are being put, and the assumptions and relationships giving rise to those uses.

    I saw Alexandra Samuels’ piece too, and frankly I was very disturbed at the idea of the authorities urging citizens to inform on their neighbours. If we’re going to use Facebook to rat each other out, we might as well save the money we pay for police departments, no?

    All good until you consider the vigilante / lynch mob mentality thus enabled. Once someone’s picture is posted, does anyone really think people are going to stop and think about the presumption of innocence, or whether the mere fact of publication proves anything? Not to mention the way the witch hunt turned even uglier than the riot itself?

    The fact that there was a flash mob picking up the mess doesn’t make that any less worrisome.

  4. Hi Mathew,

    Intriguing article! Social media is a tool that can be used in basically every way possible. Has both a lot of advantages and disadvantages depending in the way it is used. This article is giving some great examples.

  5. It’s like that saying, guns don’t kill people, people kill people.

    Social media is a tool that can basically let people do (pretty) much what they want. It can be used to organise protests against dictatorships (as seen in recent months) or it can be used for things that are not so noble.

    My guess is that in time it’ll become more regulated and not so “wild west”. Whether this is a good thing or not i do not know?

  6. Social media is here to stay for good. Given vast variety of the existing channels to choose and stick with, it’s time for such a hot space to enter into a new category.

    There is a need for a portal to provide a quick and intelligent decision for both the consumer and the enterprise about their online connections. A Platform to Help us to Distinguish Our Quality vs. Quantity Friends, Fans, Followers, and Companies.

    Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Youtube, Flickr and others have been doing a decent job of providing additional marketing exposure and even in some cases, additional revenue. However, as more and more social networking sites pop up, the task of picking the right channel getting more challenging.

    This reminds me of the early 90’s when WWW was adopted broadly by the general public. Every company rushed to have a presence, to the point it became literally impossible to find the right information on the Web. That’s when yahoo and google where born and helped us find the most relevant information by just typing simple keywords.

    Then came Web 1.0 & 2.0 – Youtube, Flickr, myspace, Facebook, Twitter and countless others have turned everyday people into content producers, influencers and experts. We basically tripled down on the information overload How do you know which channels to select for deploying your social media strategy?

    That is why I built to accomplish such a mission – the portal to all your existing social media channels.

    CEO & Founder

  7. txpatriot

    Citizen “surveillance”? Gimme a freaking break!

    If the public witnessed police brutality and posted shots of said ploice on social media, you’d be falling all over yourselves applauding how social media helps defend liberty and individual rights. So how is it any different if the public witnesses individuals breaking the law? Why shouldn’t those photos be cheered as well?

    Hypocrisy much??

    • Oh please. What happened in Vancouver was some broken windows, that is nothing compared to police brutality. Give your head a shake. You want to turn society into another Germany in the 1930s, or China during the Cultural Revolution, or East Berlin in the 1970s. Anything can be turned into a ‘crime’. Then authorities can whip up the public into snitching on each other. That’s frightening. If you don’t think so, please move to North Korea, you’d like it there.

      • txpatriot


        Next time you break some windows, you can be sure the public will be there to record it post video of the act all over Youtube. That doesn’t make our society Germany, China or N. Korea.

        But if that makes you paranoid, well that’s your problem I suppose . . .

  8. the ephemeral becomes permanent; what once was fleeting is caged, held breathless for all to probe unforgivingly. the moth round a flame can be beautiful in brevity, but its captured image is horrible in the stillness of observation.

  9. Thank you for your thought provoking post. I would love to read another post based on your statement that social media is just a tool and it can cut both ways. In my mind, you are highlighting that social media can create community or it can create isolation based on how it is used.