07/02/2011 01:31 EDT | Updated 09/01/2011 05:12 EDT

Social Media "Vigilantes'" I.D. Vancouver Rioters -- And Then Some

CBC News

The June 15 Stanley Cup hockey rampage has accurately been called "the most-documented riot in history. " And many of those who took part in it have felt not just the wrath of police and public officials, but also that of "Facebook vigilantes" who have not only tracked down many of the culprits, but have also printed their names and home addresses.

It's been fascinating to follow what's happened in Vancouver following the drunken riots after the disturbance's most famous picture -- that of the supposedly "kissing couple" (the guy was actually consoling his roughed-up girlfriend amidst riot police) -- has faded from memory.

Thousands of other riot pictures have shown the impressive power of social and digital media -- good and bad -- in tracking down the drunk knuckleheads (and probably a few anarchists) who trashed the downtown of the lovely city after the Vancouver Canucks lost their climactic hockey game. The riot aftermath is also proving what one caller on Vancouver radio talk station CKNW caller noted: "The Internet is forever."

If you've been identified -- rightly or wrongly -- as one of the rioters in the hundreds of cellphone pictures posted online by outraged Vancouverites since the June 15 ugliness -- "you could apply for a job in 20 years. And all the employer has to do is Google your name. If you're in one of those photos, you're out of luck," correctly noted the Vancouver caller.

And, as I reported in my Canada column, current employers of alleged and confessed rioters are also feeling the public's wrath (more on this below).

British Columbia's new Premier, Christy Clark, echoed the sentiments of many outraged Vancouver residents when she promised jail terms for convicted rioters. A number of web sites went up the day after the riots to Identify the rioters and to solicit the public's help in identifying those shown in cell-phone riot photos. B.C.-owned public insurer, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, offered to take thousands of photos Vancouver police were getting from the public and use facial-recognition software to help identify rioters who caused over $2 million damage to downtown stores and businesses during the four-hour drunken melee.

A Facebook group called "Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos" now lists over 100,000 "Likes" and has posted hundreds of pictures of suspected rioters, with one typical entry this week showing a man bashing in a car window with the message,

"If anyone knows who this is can you please send me his name and address, a $200.00 reward will be given. Please help, he did this to my mommy's car. ):"

Probably the best-known victim of the public's wrath toward rioters identified online and its backlash is a young member of Canada's junior Olympics water-polo team, Nathan Kotylak, who was photographed apparently trying to set fire to a Vancouver police car. Kotylak, son of a suburban physician, quickly apologized, but was suspended from the Canadian team. But his parents were threatened, and their home address appeared online, causing them to flee.

There have been other legal ramifications in the digital backlash: The owner of a popular coffee shop chain, Blenz, has filed a lawsuit against 150 "unnamed defendants" who smashed up three of his downtown locations.

The defendants in the lawsuit are named as "John Does 1 through 75, and Jane Does 1 through 75," but owner George Moen said there will be enough evidence in cell phone photos and video captured during the riot to easily identify the accused.


Over 200 arrests have been made following the riots, and scores of rioters, many identified online, have turned themselves in. The day after, a few preternaturally stupid rioters boasted online about their looting and destructive "exploits" on their Facebook pages. They were met with a firestorm of anger and threats of physical violence. (And "unfriended," of course.)

Even employers of rioters identified online have faced a backlash. One suburban Vancouver Acura dealer who employed a college student identified as a rioter has been told by angry Vancouverites that they will never buy a car from him.

He's not alone. Morning daily the Vancouver Sun reports that several local companies have been left scrambling to contain damage to their reputations because of their professional association with people thought to be involved in the downtown riots

The managing partner of one recruitment firm said he's heard from many worried clients in recent days whose employees have popped up on social networking sites seemingly participating in the violence.

The digital backlash continues, and now it extends even to the innocent -- thanks to Photoshopping of riot pictures that have intentionally and maliciously misidentified some innocent Vancouverites as rioters.

"Is it right to publicly shame looters online?" was the question posed last Sunday on CBC Radio's influential Cross-Country Checkup . The vast majority of callers I heard said it certainly was. Canadians are still ashamed and humiliated about the riots.

But CBC host Mercedes Stevenson, while agreeing with the angry callers on Sunday's show (she called it "Naming and Shaming"), allowed that Photoshopping had become a real problem as well as a solution to identifying lawbreakers.

"If there is a riot," the CBC host said, "It may be a good idea to stick around and take pictures of the rioters. But there's always the chance you'll be victimized by someone Photoshopping your picture."

Even the conservative Toronto Sun is having second thoughts about all the online vigilantes.

In a piece headlined "Vancouver's Facebook crazies prove a quiet riot is best," Sun columnist Rachel Sa wrote

"A mob mentality has twice run amok in Vancouver: First on the city streets and again on the world wide web. When outraged Vancouverites stepped up to expose and identify the city's rioters, they obviously did it with the best of intentions. But things soon got out of hand."

Sa noted that Vancouverites had submitted thousands of images of rioters to Vancouver police and flooded websites and Facebook groups dedicated to outing the criminals, adding:

"The colossal stupidity of the rioters boggles the mind. Who smashes windows, loots stores, sets cars on fire and generally dances around in the chaos like troglodytes amidst a sea of cameras and witnesses?"

"The rioters deserve to be outed," she wrote. "They deserve the public shame that comes with criminal charges. They caused severe damage, embarrassed their city, and indeed their whole nation."

But, when the Facebook vigilantes began posting personal information about rioters, including addresses and phone numbers, "They went too far," Sa said, adding:

"I have no problem with public shaming in this case. However, the posting of the personal information of rioters and their family members could incite real-life violence, not just online condemnation."

To me, one of the most interesting things about all this digital expression of outrage the past two weeks-plus is the fact that shame still exists in Canada. You'd have to look pretty hard to find it among lawbreakers -- or disgraced public officials -- in the U.S.