Crowdsourced repression: Could it happen here?

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The debate that is unfolding online about crowdsourced surveillance — what Christopher Parson referred to as Vancouver’s Human Flesh Search Engine — rests on two implicit assumptions. It’s time to get clear about what they are, so that people can talk more constructively across their differences, and perhaps even rethink their positions.

Let me start with the implicit assumption behind my Harvard Business Review post, and my follow-up piece yesterday for the Vancouver SunThe Internet is ours to shape.

As I wrote in the Sun:

We are the founding generation of social media culture, and what we do with social media matters deeply for the long run of our society, on and offline….We can decide that we want to not only accept but actively encourage the use of social media as a way for law enforcement, employers and curious neighbors to keep track of suspicious activity (however that’s defined). We can decide to use the online court of public opinion as an alternative to the formal legal system, administering shame, social stigma and professional ostracism where needed (as perceived by even one person). We can decide that your online profile and images will reflect not what you have chosen to share but what it is in the public interest to see (whatever that means). We can decide (as many people apparently have) that crowdsourcing law enforcement is no more problematic than crowdsourcing the work of holding government and law enforcement accountable: that using YouTube or Facebook to document the actions of private citizens is no different from using those channels to document the actions of people who are paid and mandated to work on our behalf.

This brings me to the second assumption underpinning this debate: It can’t happen here.

By “it”, I mean the emergence of repressive, authoritarian or violent government (or just as frightening: repressive, authoritarian or violent social movements). This is the implicit assumption of everyone who has weighed in with a comment to the effect that “I can see why you worry about online surveillance, but it’s ok in this particular case.” It’s OK in this case because what they are doing was criminal. It’s OK in this case because we are just trying to help our city. It’s OK in this case because we can see they actually did it.

Well, guess what: everyone who has ever participated in mass violence or repression can tell a story about why their actions were appropriate “in this case”. It’s OK to take away their right to a trial in this case because we need to catch the terrorists. It’s OK to inform on my neighbors in this case because otherwise my family will be in danger. It’s OK to hang him in this case because we saw him with a white woman. It’s OK to kill people in this case because those people don’t belong here.

Yes, these are inflammatory examples. They are inflammatory because they refer to the cruelest, most terrifying moments in human history. And those moments happened because somewhere along the line, citizens became more invested in ensuring the security of the community as a whole than in protecting the individual civil liberties of its members. They’re moments that can happen again if we become so afraid of invoking history — so afraid of triggering Godwin’s Law — that we fail to remind one another of what is at stake when we give into a mob mentality. Today’s mob may have (today’s) justice on its side, but once a new way of catalyzing mass vigilantism is uncovered, there’s no way of predicting how it might be applied.

No, I don’t expect jackbooted thugs to take to the streets of Vancouver tomorrow. But the world is watching how we respond to another set of thugs this week, and how we strike a balance between love of our community and passion for individual rights. If we Canadians have been blessed with a relatively clean record as far as mass repression is concerned (and if we’re ready to overlook the blemishes on that record), there are plenty of places where mob violence, vigilantism and a mass culture of informants are recent memory or present reality. And in a networked world, those places now have access to the precedent and lessons of our online mobilization against the Stanley Cup rioters. The choices we make will not only determine what happens here, but shape how citizens and governments and police forces around the world understand their relationship to one another in this new online society we are creating.

That can be a society in which democratic principles, due process and civil liberties are held to be sacrosanct. It can be a society in which Internet users recognize the power of the enormous amount of personal information now available online, and advocate passionately for its careful and limited use. It can be a society in which online information plays a role in law enforcement, but subject to the same kind of parameters and oversight we apply to offline policing. A society in which citizens may sometimes feel a duty to assist the police, but will be just as conscious of their duty to one another. A society in which we make conscious, complicated decisions about how to live as a community, and use the Internet to discuss those decisions together.

Or it can be a society in which action takes precedence over discussion: one in which the Internet’s magic ability to let us do something helps us overlook the question of whether it’s the right thing to do. A society in which the sheer volume of online information leads us to accept the use and abuse of that information as equally inevitable. A society that connects us through personal computers and home networks that are no longer just an extension of our minds and relationships and creativity, but of our governments and our courts and our cops. A society in which my neighbor is also my juror, whether or not I’ve ever been brought to trial. A society that encourages people to band together to fight crime, trusting in the wisdom of crowds. The same crowd that might come together around a hockey game, or a street party, or a full-out riot.

Thank goodness it can’t happen here.

13 Comments on this site

  1. Bruce M Campbell

    Awesome Alex. Does any generation know it is making history? This is the only one I will be a part of, that I can predict. I very much hope it doesn’t have to get much, much worse before it gets better.

    Thank you for opening the discussion.

  2. Sandi

    Thank you for writing this! I have been struggling to pin down my feelings about the shaming websites. On the one hand I think “yes, let’s identify these assholds that did this to my city”. I am angry that this could happen here.
    But. I’m really uncomfortable with the shaming websites. Is it ok to destroy or disrupt someone’s life because we have pictures of them attempting to set a car on fire? What about the lives of their families, is it ok to disrupt their lives too?
    The argument of “in this case” hits the nail on the head of why this bothers me. What’s next? When does this stop? Where do we say no, this isn’t ok this time. Is it ok because the activities at issue are illegal? What about when the activites at issue are merely objectionable but not illegal?

    For me there is a feeling that the shaming websites are a bit like lynching. Do we do any favours to react with a mob mentality when the mob mentality got us into this mess?

  3. Susan Low

    Mob mentality… it’s a funny thing. On one hand, we’re talking about whether it’s right or wrong to use mob mentality to repress individuals actions or inform on them for their actions. When I was viewing the footage and photos of the Vancouver riots, I was struck by how mob mentality was actually enabling the riots. If the other 98,000 people had decided to leave the downtown core when it was clear that 2,000 individuals were becoming destructive and violent, would the riots have taken on the same magnitude? In the photos I see hundreds of people standing around watching the destruction of private property. The “stars” of the photographs are strutting their stuff in front of an audience. What if the audience had just left? Mob mentality fueled the riots… “in this case it’s okay because there are so many other people not stopping them.”

    I think you have a good point that we have to be careful about how social media is used to shape the enforcement actions around this event. I don’t know what I’m asking for here… I just see there are two sides to the coin. The mob created the riots – so is it off limits to use the mob to deal with the aftermath?

  4. Todd Sieling

    Another great post, and most welcome. It’s very concerning that people are, without thinking and in being swept up by their emotions, turning social media into weapons that they can’t turn off. To further Bruce’s comment, we need to try and be good ancestors, and not get caught up in the moment so much whether we’re trying to do good or not. Sadly, those running the shame sites aren’t backing down, and aren’t willing to talk. 

  5. Franklin Liao

    Bruce, the answer that I can give is that most who made history are oblivious to the fact, and it is only in postmortem that the cascading consequences begin to emerge.  I have to add however that the Vancouver Riot event is not a unique watershed moment, but rather in parallel to the lives of online societies. 

    Alexandra, after to your interview on the Current, a thing that I am starting to wonder is the fact that the citizenry is not barred from conducting public shaming or… ostracism of whoever that have committed wrongdoings, so long as the charges are found to stand through due process.  The matter that we face here however is that this almighty tool of ostracism can strike before due process can validate the decision of the masses.

    Your comment regarding the use of social media in having the masses targeting individuals by governmental entities are valid to some point, but keep in mind of the following:

    1.  The Chinese regime is the getekeeper and it exercises brutal ‘moderation’ on all discussion (look at the policies on webmasters imposed by the regime for example).  However, because of/in spite of this, the netizens in China act in spontaneity; they launch human flesh searches or coordinating flash protests  without the authority granting such permissions.  Look closely at the discussion boards in Taiwan, the Chinese diaspora and Hong Kong if one needs to see the smoking guns of online dissent.   Most of the times, the party actually terminates these initiatives, whereas the more “encouraged” acts of ‘patriotic hatred against X’ by the state are answered with a healthy of scorn and doubts  (A term called “Dimers/???/wumaodang, as in ” for example is invented to describe the those that are on the payroll of the party that ‘trolls’ online to further the ends of the CCP)

    (I must agree however, that Canada, without the painful example of Cultural Revolution, Purges and the Inquisition, might not come to your suggestion about the dangers of the surveillance so quickly.)

    2.  Look at the way how Anonymous (not just the crackers in particular, but those that would hang about in 4chan and other boards) have conduct themselves.  The nihilist stance where “anonymous is not your personal army” is constantly sprang as the retort against most individual ‘suggestion’ about where the wrath of the Anonymous should be directed towards.  Even when the Anonymous decides to human flesh search some hapless victim or to conduct virtual vigilantism, such as the attack on say Scientology, the matter of conduct is anything but that of a ‘coordinated mass movement’ in nature.

    PS:  I would love to devote myself into vigorous study of this.  As witness to this tide of human affair, it’s hard to remain a lay person any longer.

  6. Franklin Liao

    Don’t despair however, and don’t think of silencing those voices that cry out to shame individuals and circumvent due process.  All of these comments are immortalized, as will your rebuke of such views on those matters.  There has never been such an avenue as this to disseminate viewpoints and to craft such arguments for posterity, so work to imprint the indelible marks on Facebook walls (save a copy too though)

  7. Yaeugb

     Hi, after listening to the piece on Current, I came here to read more about what you have said there. I’m so glad that CBC let you express your views so that they could be heard, hopefully, by many people and would make them think… It is so intuitively obvious that what is happening, this public ‘hunt’, is wrong and really invokes all sorts of concerns that similar reaction will follow any political/environmental demonstration etc.  
    The thing to think about is: Is this trend revisable? I don’t keep my hopes high.

    Thank you for speaking up! Hope your ideas will influence some people.

  8. Jodie Tonita

    I find myself coming back to this post again and again. I hear your call Alex and I strongly believe the concerns and choices you raise are of critical importance. I am also troubled by the very natural reaction folks are having which is to think that this was a moment of temporary insanity that will fade into the background… vs. an important moment where we caught a glimpse of our collective subconscious that needs to be further explored and examined to really learn from it.

    Thank you for your courage and insight. We need it.

  9. PoorBehaviour

    Yes, an authoritarian state could, like your inflammatory examples such as that of East German Stasi.

    But I would save these very legitimate concerns for situations where they are warranted.  For example, if social media were used for bullying, or persecution based on political or religious beliefs, or abortion as your example described.  

    Lets not forget what the seminal event for this discussion.  1000’s of cretins behaved poorly in public.    Many of them were engaged in obviously criminal acts.  

    They aren’t being identified individually by name because they voted NDP
    or are Protestants or went to an abortion clinic.  They are being identified for solely for their poor behaviour
    in public.  

    It is also irrelevant whether or not they were engaged in criminal acts, or if they are charged with criminal acts, or if the charges can be made to stick in court.  Poor behaviour is poor behaviour, worse if criminal acts are committed. 

    If some of these people are losing their jobs, friends, or having their reputations otherwise revised by fact that their poor behaviour is displayed on the internet, then the world is a better place. 

    At least some people capable of poor behaviour in public finally have a real world connection between actions and consequences, and the rest of us can see that as example.

  10. Alexandra Samuel

    Thanks for your nice note. I’ve been wondering and worrying about the same thing. Can we put the crowdsourced genie back in the bottle? Not sure how.

  11. Joel Crocker

    Like many, I also wonder what the future ripples of this new trend of online Naming and Shaming will be. And am curious to see how Canadian and other societies will learn to navigate governance in an increasingly connected, open-sourced, recorded and searchable world. 

    However, I agree with PoorBehaviour’s stance: Because the Vancouver Riots shaming in this case has nothing to do with any identifiable group – racial,  political, religious or otherwise – there is really no ethical issue at stake.  

    Furthermore, sometimes its OK to say “in this case”, as there are few rules that cover every possible scenario, and all precedents can domino for the better or for the worse. __
    I enjoyed your interview on the Current, Alexandra, but recall from it a discussion that seemed to indicate citizens should not be handling the criminal process, as that is what we have a police force for. There was also a comment made that those who’ve lost faith in the police system would be the ones that would endorse this public Naming and Shaming.I felt like I was being forced into one of only two narrow camps: Blindly Relying On or Having Zero Confidence In the Police. 

    In fact I think there is a wide middle ground between the two. Our cops often do a great job, but they are neither omniscient nor omnipresent and don’t claim to be. How many times have they asked the public for information related to a criminal event? Having witnesses and hard evidence are core elements of our judicial system. These online pictures of rioters are nothing more than bystander witnesses coming forward in civic duty. 

    The fact that the info is publicly visible online vs. held in a private police database is what makes this all so successful. The transparency and visible demonstration of progress is refreshing. It’s the next generation of Crime Stoppers – and the government doesn’t even have to pay anyone a reward.  Remember that the photos are not a version of a possible truth. They reveal what people were actually doing, and in many cases may provide the best evidence of criminal activity for the police to uphold our law.  
    Now the hateful online comments are a whole other issue – and the people who make them need to realize they are subject to the same level of public visibility and disclosure. 

  12. TruthSeerum

    Crazy comments online are NOT unique to social media. You can find them readily in any media comment board, online game chat room, YouTube or elsewhere. The issue is not so much the media but rather whether or not you can you really tell someone to stop making crazy comments. I’d argue public forums are still necessary and someone making an outrageous comment doesn’t negate the value of that forum. Social media has provided invaluable witness accounts in Egypt, Haiti, Libya, Iran, Syria and Japan….why not Vancouver? That’s the question. Witness accounts and testimonies are rarely 100% accurate – and the public often only hears the sanitized versions of those accounts.  But why hide what’s real out there. I think smart folks can decide what’s valid or not. It’s not like we take every YouTube comment seriously. 

  13. TruthSeerum

    What is more shameful – Citizens burning their own City? City officials blaming people who didn’t do this in the media? People distancing themselves from shame or responsibility? Or social media offering witness accounts and anger over what happened (though misguided at times)? I tend to think people publicly discussing, for better or worse, who rioted their City was essential to disclose some truth that no other source really did. While social media can be erroneous (and outrageous), it doesn’t stop anyone from correcting the facts or clearing their name or making their speech. I revert to my prior comment, i think this is less an issue of media use and more an issue of can you stop someone from making an outrageous comment in the media or social media? Or can you even stop someone from rioting again.    

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