Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Truth or Fail:: Internet Vigilanteism

Two recent social media episodes erupted in users taking to their keyboards to mete out some justice or lash out at perceived wrongs. Last week's Vancouver Canucks riot prompted a social media backlash, with users posting photos, vidcaps, and videos of those caught in flagrante delicto. Although, according to CBC, some fingers were pointed at the innocent, allegedly as a result of setups and 'Shopped images. While this is nothing new, there is concern that the use of social media to target those subject to moral or other outrage is getting out of hand and needs to be addressed. 

So, is social media now the release valve for outrage or a possible flashpoint for lawless activity? The use of the Internet as an {albeit imperfect} surveillance tool double underscores how there is no privacy in the era of social media. There are at least two problem issues with mob surveillance when people are seeking justice::
  1. Mistaken identity
  2. Vigilanteism
I think the issue with both is how far do people take it. Calling someone a douche and contacting law enforcement with misinformation is where the vast majority of online vigilanteism is going to lie. The real issue is where are the boundaries and how are they to be determined. So, on the other end of the spectrum is an Internet lynch mob seeking brutal street justice or disinformation being spread about someone who is innocent with a call to action, but what about all the grey area in-between where most behaviour is going to be?

I think in the US and Canada it would be very difficult to craft good policy that would balance free speech and vigilanteism in this era of social media. While it might seem like a good idea to prosecute those overstepping their bounds in the public shaming of alleged rioters or those spreading disinformation, what should the yardstick be in terms of true individual or societal harm?

Two Tribes
This week, Roger Ebert flippantly tweeted what I feel was an unfortunate response to the early reports of the death of Ryan Dunn::
"Friends don't let jackasses drink and drive"
I say unfortunate, as I don't see a big anti-drunk driving payoff offsetting the haterade he unleashed. While some may think less of Ebert, I doubt if it will have any lingering impact on his brand, limiting his personal #fail. Nevertheless, his wag of the finger take on Dunn's death elicited the ire of Jackass fans, as well as Dunn's friend and fellow Jackass cast member, Bam Margera::
"I just lost my best friend, I have been crying hysterical for a full day and piece of shit roger ebert has the gall to put in his 2 cents"
"About a jackass drunk driving and his is one, fuck you! Millions of people are crying right now, shut your fat fucking mouth!"
What was curious was how people on social media took sides hurling insults at one another. The pro-Ebert crowd supporting the film critic for keeping it real, dawg and telling the "truth". Jackass fans embraced the call of the vigilante for their fallen hero and called a red card on Ebert for his insensitive remark, often in a {mean} spirited manner evocative of Anonymous on 4chan's /b/. I'm sure it shocked the sensibilities of many who aren't accustomed to such bald wishes of ill-will and illness {cancer}, as well as vague threats. Earlier today, on Ebert's Facebook wall, Jackass fans and Ebert fans were going back and forth and at one point Ebert fans were finding their personal information being posted online as retaliation to tangling with a particular Jackass fan, claiming to work for an Internet security firm and had the results to back it up. I question the logic of arguing with a Jackass fan over Ryan Dunn's death on several levels, but it highlights even more how privacy is nonexistent. More interesting is how social interactions between the two factions easily degenerates into an all-out battle for winning.

I'm not in Ebert's head, but he clearly feels strongly about alcohol use and abuse and during the maelstrom he cited his own struggles with his own alcoholism. Anecdotally, I've seen online that people in recovery can be extremely vocal about their judgments regarding substances and substance abuse. What I saw unfold with the Ryan Dunn tweet aftermath was Ebert setting up a dividing line along  defined by the immorality of drunk driving and setting the tone that Dunn's death should be marked by shame in the name of "truth", i.e., an opinion and/or agenda. It may be easy for many to see the "Jackass guy" as a reckless arrested adolescent putting the lives of himself and others at risk, which would explain why many, including Ebert, gave themselves an internal green light to say "I told you so" in the name of telling the "truth". This is speculation on my part, but I've also caught a whiff of cultural elitism with respect to Ebert's take on the Jackass neo-Vaudevillean antics, which would make it easy for him to target and marginalize Dunn in his own mind. Ebert has chosen not to review any of the Jackass movies, despite the fact that they say quite a bit about the current state of pop culture and film, and freely admitted to not getting the whole Jackass thing, in discussing "Reel Paradise" {2005}::
"If I had seen 'Jackass' in John Pierson's theater with those 300 uproariously happy kids, I might have liked it. I certainly would have understood it better."
When Ebert made his tweet, there was only speculation on Dunn being under the influence of alcohol. So, yesterday, Ebert made a non-apology apology::
"I don't know what happened in this case, and I was probably too quick to tweet. That was unseemly. I do know that nobody has any business driving on a public highway at 110 mph, as some estimated -- or fast enough, anyway, to leave a highway and fly through 40 yards of trees before crashing. That is especially true if the driver has had three shots and three beers. Two people were killed. What if the car had crashed into another car?"
and was a bit overzealous in justifying his actions in social media::
"Perez Hilton's readers agree with me and not with Perez about my tweet on Ryan Dunn. He drank, he drove, 2 people died."
Given today's police report of Dunn's BAL, I'd imagine Ebert feels even more vindicated for his original tweet.

I don't find the content of what Ebert said or the backlash to be particularly interesting. Clearly, Dunn's death touched a nerve and it's a thing for him. What is interesting is how the divisiveness channelled so much sentiment and emotion. While social media can of course foster dialogue, it can also fuel the instantaneous adoption of causes and/or the taking up of sides. I think this is an emerging part of everyday online social life and it's probably far too early to think of it as problematic, but rather where we are today with the current technology and social order.

Twitterversion:: [blog] Internet vigilanteism in social media: New part of everyday social life? #vancouverriots & Ebert v. Margera @Prof_K


manofparadox said...

Dear Comrade: For reasons that might not be that interesting to others, I've been spending a lot of time on various internet sites that feature "extreme video." What I sometimes find more shocking than some of the acts people commit on other people- or animals/ or objects- is how people's fascination with "watching" (or video shooting) is detaching them from what's happening. I pity the poor soul who might "innocently" be passing thru an event such as you described in Vancouver and gets targeted for a beat down- it seems the majority about will be more interested in filming something to post on You Tube rather than alerting officials to someone about to have their skull crushed. Those who excitedly whip their camera phones out to film violence seem marginally better than those committing the aberrant acts. Their presence may even be inspiring exhibitionism.

Kenneth M. Kambara said...

I've noticed the same thing on such sites. I think you're right about those documenting the mayhem playing a role in the entire circus. This is a flipside to the era of ubiquitous transparency we're in these days.

Thanks for stopping by. Sorry it took me so long to comment.