Standing amid a St. Patrick’s Day riot in London, Ont., Brenden Dowden sent a drunken text that would update his Facebook status.
“Took part in flipping a car, lot [sic]a ctv van on fire,” a part of it said.
Eleven hours later, he had become one of the faces of the riot, where an estimated 1,000 people lit a fire, clashed with police, threw bottles and destroyed a TV van Saturday night. It was the worst-yet event along Fleming Drive, an area near a local college with a history of unrest, and made international headlines. Police have arrested 11 people so far.
Mr. Dowden, 20, quickly deleted his comment, saying later he was in the crowd but didn’t actually flip over a car as he’d claimed. But it was too late.
He was quickly identified online as a grassroots campaign took hold to identify rioters – the same thing happened after last year’s Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver. In London, Mr. Dowden got phone calls and messages from friends and strangers blaming him for the riot.
All because of one status update.
“Now I’m sitting here going: ‘I really hope I can fix this because I don’t want to end up being charged for something I didn’t even do,’ ” he told The Globe and Mail on Sunday, at which point he hadn’t heard from police. “… I look at it and think ‘Oh my gosh, like, why did I write that?’ ”
The case of Mr. Dowden is a cautionary tale in a plugged-in world: social media has changed the way police, rioters and the public react to such events. “It was pretty ridiculous how fast [it’s]all over,” he said.
Many rioters broadcast their presence to the world (“Im prob [sic]on the news for flipping that car,” tweeted one person using the name Ryan Stanhope) and the online community swiftly goes after anyone it can find.
The Stanhope account, deleted Sunday, was quickly singled out. “Lets make @_standope the face of the #ldnont #fanshawe riot,” one user wrote, while others saved images of the tweets.
Printouts and photographs of incriminating statuses flooded investigators’ offices Sunday. However, the official response is more complex. It’s difficult to prove, for instance, who was tweeting under the name Ryan Stanhope. Police need corroborating evidence, not just a tweet.
It’s nonetheless easier than ever for officers to find and charge people without actually arresting them at the scene. Photographs and video helped police identify and, ultimately, charge people in Vancouver’s riots, but also boost workload.
“What social media does is it sort of complicates police work because it provides so much more data,” said Christopher Schneider, a University of British Columbia sociology professor studying the Vancouver riots.
As London cleans up, officials must now consider whom to punish, how to do it and where to draw the line.
To lay a charge, police would also need firmer evidence, such as video or a sworn affidavit. “They have to connect that [status]to a person, and then they have to connect that person to a time and place … a tweet that says ‘yeah, I’m rioting and stealing’ is just one piece of the puzzle,” Prof. Schneider said.
London police Chief Brad Duncan called the riot “the worst case of civil disobedience” in the city’s history and pledged to identify those who took part. The grandstanding is an attempt, Prof. Schneider believes, to get people to turn themselves in, but police agree tweets alone don’t make a case.
“If there’s enough information to believe somebody may be involved in it, given Facebook, Twitter, all the social media we have out there, obviously we’re going to investigate further,” said Constable Amanda Van Doren, a London police spokeswoman.
Police should only lay charges after a “full investigation,” a spokeswoman for Ontario Attorney-General John Gerretsen said Sunday.
Eleven people are now facing charges ranging from participating in an unlawful gathering to assaulting a police officer. At least seven were students at nearby Fanshawe College, six of whom have been given interim suspensions, pending a hearing. The college is also sifting through social media records – many of its students are identifying others who took part.
“It is a totally different era, and I think even the speed at which things move sometimes surprise people – probably to the negative,” said Emily Marcoccia, the college’s marketing director. “People expect we can do things quickly because we have visual and other evidence, but in reality those are just a starting point.”
Prof. Schneider believes patience should prevail, and it did in Vancouver, where police faced criticism for moving slowly. But tweets, status updates and cellphone photographs aren’t always what they seem – and the subjects remain innocent until proven guilty.
“This image [may look]guilty as hell but I don’t know what was happening there,” Prof. Schneider says. “So everyone needs to take a breather and let the justice system do its job.”