6 crucial police guidelines for stopping social media vigilantes

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computer monitor with handcuffs

computer monitor with handcuffsYesterday, Vancouver was treated to the first court appearances by alleged participants in the 2011 Stanley Cup Riots. It was a snapshot of one of the most profound and valuable institutions in our society: a system of justice to which we have collectively delegated the task of determining guilt or innocence and handing out punishment.

All too often, we take that system for granted, but it’s worth pausing to appreciate just how beautiful, noble and remarkable this idea really is. We’re forgoing the primitive claims of vengeance and retribution, and instead delegating that power to the state so that justice may be dispensed fairly, proportionally and effectively.

Nobody should appreciate the significance of this delegation more than the Vancouver Police Board, which also met yesterday to review the VPD’s response to the independent riot report released in September.The whole point of a Police Board is to provide civilian oversight, and to ensure that the proper balance between law enforcement and civil authority.

As I have previously written, that balance was jeopardized by the use of social media in response to the Stanley Cup riots. The embrace of Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube as tools for identifying alleged rioters raised the worrying spectre of crowdsourced citizen surveillance. The rapid degeneration into racism, homophobia and misogyny that unfolded on many of the DIY “catch a rioter” sites spoke to the dangers of web-enable vigilantism. Even some Vancouverites who initially embraced social media as a tool for identifying rioters changed their minds when they saw how quickly this kind of participatory law enforcement turned ugly.

The riot report, authored by Douglas Keefe and John Furlong, trivialized the very real concerns that many people raised about this emergent social media surveillance culture. It wrote off the international attention generated by Vancouver’s social media riot response as a ” ‘gee-whiz’ social media story”, stating:

Though the impact of the terror experienced by individuals cannot be underestimated, the riot itself was mild by global standards and there was little about the night’s events that seemed likely to turn the experience into a major international news story. Thanks in part to the Arab Spring movement that began earlier this year, wholesale microbroadcasting of mass public events had become familiar. So by June that wasn’t news either. Nor was use of Twitter, Facebook and other social media services to organize demonstrations.

Vancouver stood apart, catching everybody off guard, in quite another way. It turned out that the story everybody wanted to hear about was how ordinary citizens in Vancouver became vigilantes by taking pictures and video of apparently red-handed rioters for later sharing with police. Now, here was something new! It was as if most of the participants were carrying their own broadcast device and using it to report, communicate, photograph and record.

Given this perspective, which reduced the very serious concerns about social media vigilantism to a simple case of media hype, it was no wonder that the report’s only social media recommendations concern the use of social media as a crowd control tool. This was disappointing, since the police have an important role to play in setting the tone for how citizens use online tools to support law enforcement — a role the VPD played appropriately, if belatedly.

But the Police Board may have a clearer stake in ensuring the VPD succeeds where the riot report fails. The report’s authors may have failed to acknowledge the way social media challenges the boundary between civilian and police authority, but it’s the Board’s responsibility to patrol that crucial divide. The Board can and should ask the VPD to develop social media guidelines that ensure our police force plays a leadership role on this important issue, both within Vancouver and internationally.

These guidelines should include:

  1. The VPD should adopt an explicit policy of discouraging citizen use of social media to identify suspects.
  2. The VPD’s website and all other presences (Twitter, Facebook, microsites like the Riot 2011 site) should contain clear do’s & don’ts for submitting online tips to the police, asking that tips be submitted directly and exclusively to the police, and not posted to social media sites.
  3. When asking for public help in identifying or locating suspects, and particularly around high-profile events or crimes, the police should remind the public to contact the police directly and to avoid using social media.
  4. Police officers should not ask members of the public to refrain from photographing or filming public demonstrations or riots, even when concerned that such filming may be a step towards social media identification of perpetrators. Police may ask camera users to move along as part of an overall crowd control operation.
  5. When commenting on incidents of citizens using social media to accuse or identify alleged criminals, VPD spokespeople should reference department policy discouraging such social media use.
  6. The policy of discouraging the use of social media for identifying private citizens should not apply to the use of social media as a tool for ensuring accountability of police officers or public figures. The VPD should not discourage social media posts that allege criminal or inappropriate activity on the part of law enforcement.
The most difficult question is whether and how the police make use of  any evidence or tips that are posted through social media. If Jimmy posts a bunch of rioter pictures, despite the VPD urging him and others to submit tips confidentially, can the VPD use those pictures in their investigation? If the VPD calls Jimmy and asks him to share his original files, they’re implicitly endorsing his use of social media, even though it violates department policy. If they refuse to look at Jimmy’s pictures, they may be missing crucial evidence. And if they ask Jimmy to take those pictures down so that they can use the pictures without violating policy, then….well, I think we can all agree that when cops start knocking on doors and asking people to stop the presses, it’s time to worry.
This question, and the policy guidelines above, are quite separate from the also-thorny issue of whether and how the police can themselves use social media as a crime prevention, intelligence or investigation tool. Routine police monitoring of online conversation is something that many civil rights advocates argue is an abuse of law enforcement powers.

But even if you think that cops can and should surveil social media for criminal activity, you should have serious reservations about the police encouraging citizens to regularly and publicly inform on other citizens. Fostering a culture of perpetual mutual surveillance is the quickest way to turn social media into Big Brother. It’s up to Vancouver’s Police Board and the VPD to help us find a better way to live together, on- and offline.

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