Globe Editorial

Social norms vs. social media

June 18, 2011

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THE RIOTS in Vancouver that marred the last game of the Stanley Cup finals may have been partially organized by hooligans on Twitter and Facebook. Now, many vengeful Canadians are turning to the same tools to catch the perpetrators. It’s an understandable, but potentially dangerous, impulse.

Vancouverites have posted thousands of pictures from the riot on Facebook, and a campaign to identify the culprits has gone viral. Employers, teachers, and everyone else have been urged to scrutinize the pictures, and to expose those who were involved. The campaign stems from a reasonable desire to shame and punish the thugs who smashed the city’s storefronts — and its peaceful reputation. Bostonians would have felt the same way if troublemakers stirred up that kind of unrest here, and nobody is going to shed any tears for rioters identified by the campaign.

But lobbing accusations on social networking sites can devolve too easily into a form of online vigilantism, and investigations like this one are still tasks best left to law enforcement. After all, snapshots don’t always tell the whole story. In confused exchange that played out on Tumblr, commenters debated whether a man seen in photos brandishing a hockey stick was participating in the riot or protecting a store from looters. That’s not the type of determination that should be crowd-sourced, in Vancouver or anywhere else.

While it’s certainly preferable for police to sift through the evidence, that, too, raises uncomfortable questions about the nexus between social networking and law enforcement. Facebook and Twitter can organize mass events — be they hipster flash-mobs, Egyptian democracy protests, or Canadian hockey riots — in ways that were impossible before. But it’s a two-edged sword.

Facebook has provided an almost bottomless trove of information to police. Even when encouraged by justified popular outrage, law enforcement needs to use that power with care.