Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 is a long way from Vancouver, BC in 2011, and yet there are some alarming similarities emerging in the wake of the Vancouver riots. Four hundred years ago, individuals were publicly hunted and persecuted with no chance of a fair trial. On the rare occasion that they were found to be ‘not guilty’, they would still experience humiliation, violation and degradation at the hands of their peers. If they managed to escape a public hanging, they would become outcasts, condemned to a life sentence of stigma, banished from their communities. If we look closely, we are witness to this same public denigration of those who participated in the riots following the Stanley Cup Final last Wednesday night. Understandably, the good citizens of Vancouver feel justified in taking the moral high-ground and passing judgement on those who desecrated their city. However, there is a fine line between calling for justice and the obsessive vigilante ethos that has dominated social media networks over the past four days.
In modern terminology ‘witch-hunt’ has acquired usage referring to the act of seeking and persecuting any perceived enemy, particularly when the search is conducted using extreme measures and with little regard to actual guilt or innocence. It is used whether or not it is sanctioned by the government, or merely occurs within the “court of public opinion”. (Wikipedia)
As the news of the riots broke on twitter and tumblr feeds, people were simultaneously establishing facebook sites requesting identification of the culprits who were rampaging on the streets of Vancouver. This happened prior to the official invitation from the Premier and Chief of Police. I have no objection to the request for public assistance, in fact, I condone the submitting of photographic ‘evidence’ to the authorities and applaud those who are ‘turning themselves in’ to authorities. However, I strongly object to the manner in which this ‘investigation’ has been conducted online, the attitude of surveillance and the wanton ‘naming and shaming’ by those who claim to be acting out of civic responsibility and national pride. There is an ethical difference between submitting evidence to police and assuming the multiple roles of detective, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. It is becoming shamefully apparent that the behaviour of a massive amount of ‘decent law-abiding’ people in social media world reflects a similar ’groupthink’ and disregard for the rights of one’s fellow citizens that these ‘do-gooders’ were so quick to condemn.
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