The Tag-A-Rioter Phenomenon and The Everywhere of Crime

At this point, any discussion of why the Vancouver hockey riot happened is decidedly old-hat. The long and short of it is that it happened, plain and simple. I think the more pressing and interesting question is, what happens now?

Almost immediately after the riot broke out, social media networks were alight with photos of rioters posing in front of burning cars, looters running out of stores with armfuls of stolen merchandise, and thugs kicking in windows and doors. It didn’t take long before a Facebook group had been set up that asked users to tag the rioters, if they recognized them. The idea carried over to Tumblr, where a number of “tag-the-douche” blogs caught fire, posting a deluge of crowd-sourced contributions. The idea behind the whole exercise was to help the Vancouver Police track down and arrest those responsible for the destruction of the downtown core following Vancouver’s loss to Boston in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals.

To be sure, I understand the sentiment behind the scheme. Rather than criminalizing a whole crowd, many of whom did no rioting whatsoever, the tag-a-douche system seems to hold the promise of bringing the real perpetrators to justice. All the same, it’s an exercise that simply doesn’t sit well with me.

The link between social media networking platforms with surveillance is nothing new. It’s been a major part of the discourse around information communication technologies (ICTs) for the better part of a decade. But what we saw on Wednesday night seems to signal a disquieting shift in how this relation operates. An entire city was actively encouraged to become a kind of ambient, always-everywhere surveillance wing of  it’s Police Department. For years, people have decried the installation of security cameras in urban cores around the world, denouncing the practice as an Orwellian invasion of public space by unseen private eyes. Yet when the hockey riots broke out, what is essentially the same act- enforcing adherence to the boundaries of civility and legality by (to paraphrase Foucault) shifting power to the visual register- was decentralized, put in the hands of citizens, and transformed into a city-wide haze. What for decades has been scathingly critiqued as an invasion of privacy by pseudo-totalitarian governments went through a whiplash rebranding and emerged out the other side a democratic, crowd-sourced form of justice.

What really happened on Wednesday was the outsourcing of the job of legal enforcement and policing to citizens. I’d say we were drafted or conscripted into taking on the labour of surveillance, but for the most part, it’s a role that has been taken up willingly, even enthusiastically.

I raised this argument with a friend earlier, and she pointed out to me that, while on-side in principle, the acts of the rioters were exceptional. They weren’t rioting in the name of democracy or civil rights, after all. They were hooligans awash in hormones, hive-mind cultural relations, machismo, and shared disappointment*. They needed to be brought to justice, and the city came together to ensure that they were.

Just like my friend, I’m on-side, but only in principle. Even if the cause of this new form of crowd-sourced/distributed/ambient surveillance seems ethically sound, its effects are uniformly distressing. As the work of policing and enforcement is outsourced to us via our smartphones and interaction platforms, the boundaries that define the notion of “criminal” get hazy. We’re not legal or law enforcement professionals, and as such, we simply don’t have the same understanding of what counts as crime as do the Police proper. Yet in this round of riots, a number of people found themselves in the position of having to make just such judgment calls. They were encouraged to send in snapshots of rioters, some of whom were most certainly criminals, but we should always remember that the photographic image has an amazing capacity to disembody and decontextualize. A passer-by caught in the gravity of a photograph of a burning car, for example, while likely legally innocent, is instantly implicated in an ostensibly criminal act.

What happens, then, is that the realm of ‘the criminal’ expands ever outward. Anything that appears criminal or could possibly be criminal gets roped into the domain, regardless of the vagaries of context that the photograph tends to flatten. The boundaries of what counts as a potential threat get wider and wider, and the whole question of ‘crime’ becomes abstract; a kind of fog that turns people into out-of-focus smudges on a smoky horizon.

This is precisely the kind of abstraction that feeds the culture of fear. One need only think of a term like “The War on Terror.” It is, by its nomenclature, a war on a concept, a concept that, if most major media and government messaging is to be believed, is always-already everywhere, deterritorialized, insidious, penetrative. It is a way of framing and mediating ‘the other’ that simultaneously uproots it and places it in your backyards. How often have we heard the scare tactic that the people we trust, our co-workers, our neighbours, our instructors, ad nauseam, could be terrorists? Mobilizing this fear of the insidious, invisible threat is only possible when the threat itself seems diffuse and vague, only when we are encouraged to see the suspicious or non-ordinary as potentially criminal.

Granted, there’s a big gap between hockey riot and global terrorism, but the same gaseous vision of crime underpins both. The decentralization of surveillance, then, while perhaps effective at tracking down the odd hoodlum, seems to me a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a new discourse of criminality, both sustaining of and sustained by a vague fear of the other, wrapped up in disingenuous democratic robes.

The tag-a-douche system might seem like a bid for collective, collaborative justice, but ultimately, it simply lays out the technological and social infrastructure necessary for a society of truly universal surveillance and paranoia. At the risk of sounding too dramatic, it has the capacity to literally turn all of us against one another. If we are all potential criminals at the same time as we are all potential enforcers, then, at least in my estimation, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine an every-man-for-himself, very-near future.

*I should clarify: this is actually how I feel about the rioters. They’re total jerks and suck a lot.