Social media’s mob mentality: Lessons to be learned from the Vancouver Riots

My colleague, Sara, wrote a great post on the Vancouver riots and Public Engagement. And while I agree with much of what she says, I do think that there are some cautionary lessons to be learned about Social Media from the Vancouver riots alongside the more positive ones.

A friend of mine works for the Mountain Rescue team and he told me that their first rule when reacting to an emergency call is that the early information that you receive is almost always incorrect. And not just slightly misinformed in its details but, more often than not, entirely wrong. Social Media, when it takes the form of Citizen Journalism has a tendency to generate wildly unverified claims and furthermore, like a child’s game of telephone, these claims can often mutate as they are shared through networks to become even more distorted from the truth. For an example, check out these Tweets from Global’s post What happened to the ‘beaten’ Bruins fan?”

What happened to the beaten Bruin's fan?

In reality, the Bruins fan had shoved someone and, as a result, was knocked down by security guards. But obviously, the escalation of severity that these Tweets display could have a major effect on a reader’s overall perspective of the situation. The traditional news sources were picking up these fragments and running with them as well. From that, decisions and actions by authorities are suddenly being made on nothing more than amplified rumour. With all of this new media in play, our society at all levels must continue to educate themselves on how to read information and the Social Media community also has a role to play in keeping information accurate, of self-policing and remaining open to new information as it comes in.

The other behaviour that I observed upon reflection today was that our immediate reaction to something as devastating as watching our city go up in flames is emotionally charged and extremely reactionary and tends to evolve over the course of an evening. I submit that some variation on the Seven Stages of Grief was very much in play as I sat and watched and reacted. Looking over my tweets and posts throughout the evening, they indeed fluctuate from early joking (denial) to calling for vigilante justice (anger) to an exhausted defeat (depression). From tonight’s perspective, I would not have posted the link to a Tumblr site that invites people to post pictures of the rioters. That is not a public website’s role, that is something that police should be undertaking and, in fact, they are doing exactly that. But at the time, I was hungry for blood by any means necessary.

Even now, there have been Facebook pages set up for those specific individuals who have been identified in the riot photos where people are gathering to post angry and often hostile messages. Am I angry at the rioters for what they have done? Yes. Do I think that they should be publicly shamed and judged by their fellow citizens. No, I don’t. We have a court system to handle these matters. I see a scary parallel in the mentality of the Facebook vigilantes with those that they are persecuting. It is ugly. It is violent. And it is feeding on itself. Bad decisions are made in these kinds of emotional moments. There always needs to be time for reflection and an opportunity to assess what you have just experienced in order to make sense of it. The immediacy of our world today does not leave room for this.

So I guess what I am saying is that –to quote Peter Parker’s wise old Uncle Ben– with great power, comes great responsibility. We must become educated and experienced in the group behaviours of social media, both the positive and the more dangerous. Otherwise, you risk creating two mob mentalities: the rioting youth on the streets and the reacting social media crowd online.

3 Responses to Social media’s mob mentality: Lessons to be learned from the Vancouver Riots

  1. Shawn Forde says:

    I think the social media aspects you bring up are interesting. Your post reminds me of the Chinese ‘Human-flesh search engines’ (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/magazine/07Human-t.html). I also wrote a little bit about it on my blog (http://sport4dev-discussion.blogspot.com/2011/06/vancouver-riots-and-social-media.html) in terms of the social surveillance aspect with the police and citizens using Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter to collectively gather evidence and ‘out’ those responsible.

  2. Danny Brown says:

    It’s not just social media though, is it? News agencies have reported erroneous information for years (the difference being, they offer a retraction and apology when wrong). And a lot of PR agencies have been spinning wildly inaccurate information, and sending it around the web as well as print, to sell their client and make them look better than they actually are.

    It’s a bit too easy to blame social media and the mob mentality, when the mob was there long before social media, and were doing a good job of playing people and news outlets on their own.

  3. Why does everything have to be a lesson? As Danny said nothing’s new here. The media screwed up the first hour of coverage the night Bin Laden was killed, because they thought is was Quaddafi who was killed. Good guess though right? Yet, people had to write about the lessons learned from that event. Rumor spreading has been going on since hieroglyphics so if we haven’t learned our lesson by now we’re doomed as a civilization.

    People are assholes. Period. Riots post sporting championships are commonplace now. It’s not right, but nobody should be surprised. The only real surprise is the riot occurred in the losing city, which is usually not the case. If you’re going to pull a movie quote Kevin I would have gone with “Stupid is as stupid does”.