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Camille Cacnio, who participated in the Vancouver riots on June 15, pictured in Surrey, B.C., Sunday, June 19, 2011. (Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Camille Cacnio, who participated in the Vancouver riots on June 15, pictured in Surrey, B.C., Sunday, June 19, 2011.

(Rafal Gerszak/Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

Margaret Wente

You know what scares me? The online mob Add to ...

When a young man named Nathan Kotylak was caught on cellphone stuffing a gas-soaked rag into the fuel tank of a Vancouver police car last week, I was as outraged as everyone was. What a punk. But now I’m feeling sorry for the guy. The promising young athlete is the most hated 17-year-old in Canada. After his image was posted online, he and his family were deluged with threats. They had to flee their house, and his father temporarily closed his medical practice. The young offender turned himself in to police, declined his (theoretical) right to anonymity, and read a lengthy televised apology.

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“I want to say as clearly as I can that there is no excuse for my behaviour,” he said, through sobs. “I have let my family and friends down, and I will face the consequences and take responsibility for my actions.”

But not everyone is content to let justice take its course. Citizen vigilantes want him run out of town on a rail. Fortunately for them, tar and feathers are harder to find than websites with names such as publicshamingeternus.

The online mob that formed in the wake of the Vancouver riot is as scary as the mob that vandalized the city. People want the miscreants not only punished by the law, but publicly humiliated, kicked out of school and fired from their jobs. As one of the milder online comments put it, “String ’em up.”

In some ways, the new powers of citizen watchdogs are a good thing. I’m glad that ordinary people can use their cellphone cameras to expose misbehaviour by police and other authorities. I am not so glad that so many ordinary people are in such a rush to turn in their neighbours.

Many of these online vigilantes say there’s no problem here. After all, if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you have no reason to be worried. This is same argument made by the surveillance state.

At first, Vancouver’s mayor and police chief were eager to distance the rioters from law-abiding citizens by calling them “thugs” and “anarchists.” Now the online vigilantes are making the same mistake. Mostly, the rioters were our kids and our neighbours’ kids.

“What was going on in my head?” wailed Camille Cacnio, a young looter caught on cellphone taking two pairs of men’s pants from a clothing store. Ms. Cacnio is a student at the University of British Columbia majoring in conservation biology. In an online self-exculpation, she blamed the influence of the mob for her actions. “As bad as it sounds, the stealing was purely fun for me. I just wanted to get a souvenir at the time. … I was immature, intoxicated, full of adrenalin, disappointed in the loss, filled with young rage. … It was a spur of the moment kind of thing and I just got caught up in the chaos.” Besides, she says, she tried to stop some people who were vandalizing trees.

It’s easy to heap scorn on Ms. Cacnio, who positively beamed as she posed online with her trophy pants. But her description of mob psychology – while not excusing her behaviour – is reasonably accurate. Take a too-large crowd of overly excited young adults, add stupendous quantities of alcohol, and watch the mayhem. Ms. Cacnio and her ilk deserve probation, fines, a long stint of community service, and a serious spanking. Most of them do not deserve jail time. None deserves a lifetime of infamy. Unfortunately, no one’s infamy can be expunged in cyberspace.

There’s a reason we’ve delegated the administration of justice to the state, instead of to our neighbours. Neighbours aren’t always very rational. They have a disturbing tendency to hang ’em high and ask questions later. And some are all too eager to turn in other people. Societies where neighbours are routinely encouraged to spy on one another and report them to the state are not societies in which I’d particularly care to live.

The social media expert Alexandra Samuel writes, “Precisely because social media is such a powerful tool of mass mobilization, it has the potential to turn selective co-operation with law enforcement into a mass culture of surveillance.” In other words, as she puts it, we have seen Big Brother. And he is us.

 

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