“Electronic justice” after Vancouver riots

Some online responses to the recent Vancouver riots (see here and here) are now being called “electronic justice“:

The more than 3,000 words posted online (replicated in full below) were called an apology and it seemed a remarkable display of contrition by a young woman caught on video looting a tuxedo rental outlet, wearing a Canucks shirt and a broad grin, during Vancouver’s ignoble Stanley Cup riot. But the screed that followed dished as much justification and vitriol as self-flagellation and regret, leaving many readers cold to Camille Cacnio’s reconciliation.

It is seen as the next stage in an emerging form of “electronic justice” that has accompanied the riot. The naming and shaming came first, a time-honoured way for a community to express dismay and disgust, as people posted photos of suspected perpetrators online. It was a modern version of the medieval stocks, when an offender was held in a square for public humiliation. It seemed a suitable response: a mob exposing participants in a mob; crowdsourcing v. herd mentality.

But the extent and viciousness of the online identifications and humiliation is causing discomfort as well. Self-appointed cyber sheriffs emailed the employers, family, schools of the suspects…

Christopher Schneider, sociology professor at the University of British Columbia, calls it “vigilante justice in cyberspace…. It is a very dangerous path we’re taking. It is quite unsettling. The role of social media in this is profound.”

I’m sure this could be tied to larger discussions about online anonymity and what people are willing to do online that they may not be willing to do in person.

I’m not sure what the lesson is for the woman who posted this long apology. On one hand, it sounds like she wanted to take some responsibility. On the other hand, she simply made herself a bigger target. Perhaps we could settle on this: beware what one posts and/or admits online.

I wonder what the “employers, family, schools of suspects” did when they received news of who had been involved in the riots. Without such emails, many might not have known who was involved. But regardless of how they find out, are these collectives obligated to take action?

If this “electronic justice” is dangerous, might we reach a point where authorities crack down? Already, more websites have become much more strict about what comments they will tolerate.

Sociologist who studies sports riots tries to explain Vancouver riots

On Thursday, I threw out a few ideas about the riots in Vancouver after the Canuck’s Game 7 loss. A sociologist who has studied over 200 sports riots suggests what happened in Vancouver was quite unusual as it followed a loss rather than a win:

In fact it is so unusual that Jerry Lewis, the author of Sports Fan Violence in North America, told CBC News that what we saw Wednesday night “might be called the Vancouver effect.”

An emeritus professor of sociology at Kent State University in Ohio, Lewis has looked closely at over 200 sports riots in the U.S. and none of them followed a loss by the home team.

That little quirk aside, however, Vancouver’s night of rampage does fit relatively well with the overall pattern of sports riots in North America. From his research, Lewis has identified five common conditions:

  • A natural urban gathering place.
  • The availability of a ‘cadre’ of young, white males.
  • Championship stakes.
  • Deep in the series.
  • A close, exciting game.

It appears that the riots in Vancouver followed some of the patterns of sports riots (the five cited above) except for the fact that they came after a loss. Lewis and another academic go on to suggest that the rioting in Vancouver “was simply an expression of frustration.” Another academic also suggests that North Americans tend to pout after sports losses while European crowds are more liable to cause trouble because they see it as an attack on their identity.

If all of this is true, then the real question to ask is why this happened in Vancouver (and also happened in 1994)? Lots of cities go through big sports losses and there are a lot of frustrated sports fans every year as only one team can win a championship in each major sports. What leads to a different reaction in Vancouver? This sounds like it could be a very interesting case study.

Championship wins and losses as an “acceptable” time to riot

It has become a somewhat common ritual (though it doesn’t happen in all instances): a team wins a championship and happy fans celebrate with small riots and civil disturbances. But the script got flipped Tuesday night in Vancouver after the Canucks lost Game 7 to the Bruins:

Almost 150 people required hospital treatment overnight and close to 100 were arrested after rioters swept through downtown Vancouver following a Canucks loss to the Boston Bruins in the decisive Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals…

Rioting and looting left cars burned, stores in shambles and windows shattered over a roughly 10-block radius of the city’s main shopping district.

Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson said “organized hoodlums bent on creating chaos incited the riot” and noted the city proved with the 2010 Winter Olympics that it could hold peaceful gatherings. A local business leader estimated more than 50 businesses have been damaged…

“The destructive actions and needless violence demonstrated by a minority of people last night in Vancouver is highly disappointing to us all,” the team statement read. “We are proud of the city we live and play in and know that the actions of these misguided individuals are not reflective of the citizens of Vancouver or of any true fans of the Canucks or the game of hockey.”

The rest of the article goes on to suggest that people in Vancouver are shocked that this happened. But this brings up some interesting questions:

1. Why riot after the outcome of championship series and not so much at other times (like at the Olympics)? Sports do invoke a lot of emotions but as a friend suggested to me recently, sports help channel passions into non-destructive channels. So people these days get so worked up over sports that it spills into civil disobedience? Perhaps we are taking sports too seriously.

2. Could there be small groups of people in cities that are looking for excuses to do things like this and then seize upon the circumstances of a sports championship? If this is the case, then there are larger systemic issues to deal with. At the same time, it means that a city can blame some “bad apples” (“organized hoodlums” in the story above) rather than admitting there may be bigger problems.

3. I wonder how much stories like these continue to push people toward the suburbs.

Modeling “wordquakes”

Several researchers suggest that certain words on the Internet are used in patterns similar to those of earthquakes:

News tends to move quickly through the public consciousness, noted physicist Peter Klimek of the Medical University of Vienna and colleagues in a paper posted on arXiv.org. Readers usually absorb a story, discuss it with their friends, and then forget it. But some events send lasting reverberations through society, changing opinions and even governments.

“It is tempting to see such media events as a human, social excitable medium,” wrote Klimek’s team. “One may view them as a social analog to earthquakes.”…

Events that came from outside the blogosphere also seemed to exhibit aftershocks that line up with Omori’s law for the frequency of earthquake aftershocks.

“We show that the public reception of news reports follow a similar statistic as earthquakes do,” the researchers conclude. “One might also think of a ‘Richter scale’ for media events.”

“I always think it’s interesting when people exploit the scale of online media to try to understand human behavior,” said Duncan Watts, a researcher at Yahoo! Research who describes himself as a “reformed physicist who has become a sociologist.”

But he notes that drawing mathematical analogies between unrelated phenomena doesn’t mean there’s any deeper connection. A lot of systems, including views on YouTube, activity on Facebook, number of tweets on Twitter, avalanches, forest fires, power outages and hurricanes all show frequency graphs similar to earthquakes.

“But they’re all generated by different processes,” Watts said. “To suggest that the same mechanism is at work here is kind of absurd. It sort of can’t be true.”

A couple of things are of note:

1. One of the advantages of the Internet as a medium is that people can fairly easily track these sorts of social phenomenon. The data is often in front of our eyes and once collected and put into a spreadsheet or data program is like any other dataset.

2. An interesting quote from the story: the “reformed physicist who has become a sociologist.” This pattern that looks similar to an earthquake is interesting. But sociologists would also want to know why this is the case and what factors affect the initial “wordquake” and subsequent aftershocks. (But it is interesting that the paper was developed by physicists: how many sociologists would look at this word frequency data and think of an earthquake pattern?)

2a. Just thinking about these word frequencies, how does this earthquake model differ from other options for looking at this sort of data? For example, researchers have used diffusion models to examine the spread of riots. Is a diffusion model better than an earthquake model for this phenomena?

3. Does this model offer any predictive power? That is, does it give us any insights into what words may set off “wordquakes” in the future?

IMF warns of social consequences of global recession

A new report from the International Monetary Fund and the International Labour Federation suggests the recent global economic crisis could lead to social instability:

A joint IMF-ILO report said 30m jobs had been lost since the crisis, three quarters in richer economies. Global unemployment has reached 210m. “The Great Recession has left gaping wounds. High and long-lasting unemployment represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies,” it said.

The study cited evidence that victims of recession in their early twenties suffer lifetime damage and lose faith in public institutions. A new twist is an apparent decline in the “employment intensity of growth” as rebounding output requires fewer extra workers. As such, it may be hard to re-absorb those laid off even if recovery gathers pace. The world must create 45m jobs a year for the next decade just to tread water.

The Telegraph headline say this social instability was termed a “social explosion.”

So what kind of social consequences are these groups talking about? A number of commentators have noted how such recessions affect future behaviors, particularly among younger generations who become scarred by such experiences. But when a term like “social explosion” is used, it suggests images like riots, labor strikes, labor demonstrations, perhaps even the collapse of democracies in the face of pressure from angry citizens. In the United States, it is hard to imagine this. (Indeed, it is an interesting question to ask: what would have to happen for a majority of Americans to participate in more demonstrative collective action?) Even the Great Depression didn’t lead to many violent or excessive disruptions (or at least the history books don’t discuss much of this).

I wonder how much of this language is prompted by particular political viewpoints. The Telegraph hints at this:

“Most advanced countries should not tighten fiscal policies before 2011: tightening sooner could undermine recovery,” said the report, rebuking Britain’s Coalition, Germany’s austerity hawks, and US Republicans. Under French socialist Strauss-Kahn, the IMF has assumed a Keynesian flavour.

The whole situation bears watching – how will average citizens respond?