Social media brings out the snitch in all of us

Twitter and Facebook can be powerful tools for reporting on important events, including the uprisings in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — but they can also become a powerful tool for surveillance as well, as the police and government authorities in Egypt and other countries have shown. What happens when we turn these tools of public surveillance on one another? We got a glimpse of that in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Wednesday, after the final game in the NHL playoffs, when citizens started posting photos of themselves rioting in the streets — and it’s a glimpse of a future some would rather not see.

As the riots were occurring, with hundreds of people reportedly injured and cars and buildings burned and looted, photos of those involved in the incidents started showing up on Twitter and on other social networks such as Facebook and Tumblr. Soon people were collecting them and asking for others to contribute — both on a Tumblr blog dedicated to the riots and on a Facebook page called “Vancouver Riot Pics: Post Your Photos” — and others were passing photos around on Twitter asking others to identify the people in them.

The local police also asked for help in identifying rioters and other lawbreakers. There’s no doubt that all of those crowdsourced photos would certainly help in that effort (police asked on Twitter for those with photos to hang onto them), especially since Facebook recently launched a facial-recognition service that auto-tags photos based on the suggestions of other users, something that critics have said is an invasion of privacy.

This vision of a future in which we all surveill and report on one another — the social media version of philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison made of mirrors that allows everyone to see what their neighbor is doing — doesn’t strike everyone as the kind of future they want to live in. Alexandra Samuel, writing in the Harvard Business Review, said that she sees this kind of Little Brother–style activity as a breach of the promise of social media, which is supposed to help form a community. She said:

I was deeply disturbed to see the community of social media enthusiasts embrace a new role: not in observation, not in citizen journalism, but in citizen surveillance.

But others argue that the kind of behavior seen in the aftermath of the Vancouver riots is a natural outgrowth of how social media functions. Open-web advocate and political consultant David Eaves wrote in response to Samuels that he sees the use of Twitter and Facebook to identify criminals as a natural step, although not necessarily one that we might want to see in every case. But what is the alternative, he asks: governments setting laws for what can be posted and what can’t?

In the end, Samuels is right that social media helps us create or enhance community — but what that community decides to do with those tools is a lot harder to control or determine. A great example is 4chan, the anarchic online forum that has given birth to dozens of Internet memes: The same community that can attack a defenseless 11-year-old girl and subject her to public ridicule can also marshal an incredible amount of effort to identify someone who tortured an animal and bring them to justice. Is that vigilantism? Perhaps.

The reality is that social media is an expression of society’s mores and desires in real time — another example of what Om has called the alive web. Sometimes those desires are good, and sometimes they are not. The same force that compelled people to post photos of suspected looters also convinced some to put together a crowdsourced effort to clean up the streets after the riots. Social media is just a tool, and it can cut in both directions. The sooner we learn that, the better.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Andy Roberts