Illustration: Toby Morris

Why are the police cheering social media ‘pressure’ driven by online vigilantism?

Social media can be an effective tool for police in finding missing persons and suspects. But where is the line and was it crossed this week?

Revenge is so many things. It’s a dish best served cold. It’s sweet but not fattening. It’s an acid that burns its holder. Justice is nothing. Justice is just. And when the two find themselves in bed together, no good can come of it. Revenge masquerading as justice is how I found myself scrolling through thousands of comments this morning ranging from “oxygen thieves who should have been drowned at birth” to “chuck the cunts in the boot for a couple days then let them out for the dogs to play with”. Not much of a range when everyone’s out for blood.

The “oxygen thieves” are four young men who allegedly assaulted a 74-year-old man in Clendon Pak’N’Save on Monday after he told them not to throw food on the ground. They punched him, breaking his nose and injuring his jaw, before fleeing. The crime is heinous, the fleeing cowardly, and the punishment inevitable. But does the way things unfolded really provide us with a model to aspire to?

After an 18-year-old turned himself into police in relation to the assault, Huntly police sergeant Will Hamilton issued a press statement praising social media for the part it played, saying “it was a fantastic result and demonstrates the power of modern media”.

The part social media played was this. Shortly after the incident occurred, a member of the victim’s family posted an account of what happened onto their Facebook page. It attracted dozens of comments and shares. A Facebook user, seemingly unrelated to the victim, shared the post. Early the next morning that same user posted a photograph of four young men, saying they were involved in the incident. The photo is of a computer screen showing CCTV footage from Pak’N’Save with all four faces easily identifiable. As of writing, the photo has been shared 9,912 times. Comments on the photo were wholly negative and violent. Calling for abuse and death if and when the four were apprehended.

By mid morning, the Herald had published an article on the assault, quoting the victim’s son and a Foodstuffs spokesperson. The story included the image of the four young men, grabbed from the Facebook page, with their faces blurred.

When the story was shared by the Herald Facebook page, the comments streamed in. People wanted to know why the faces were blurred. “Show their faces … I’m sure the public would love to know. Disgusting!” read the top comment. Further down, the uncensored photo was shared, as well as the full names of three of the young men.

At this point, the police had not released a statement on the assault itself or the image circulating, though they were aware of online activity, telling Stuff, “Police discourage anyone from taking matters into their own hands.” There was no confirmation that those four men were even suspects.

Another user posted the uncensored image as well as photos of the men’s Facebook accounts. The post has been shared almost 3,000 times. The police still did not confirm that the people in the image were being sought.

The circumstances are different, of course, but everyone remembers what happened on social media in the days after the Boston Marathon bombing. Members of the public, with justice on their minds, graduated from amateur detective school and set about “finding” the bomber. Photos of reddit suspects were shared endlessly and innocent people were forced into hiding after receiving death threats online. The hundreds of comments on the uncensored images in New Zealand echo many of those sentiments: find these criminals and make them hurt.

Aggressive comments on Facebook are nothing new and won’t be going anywhere soon. But for the police to issue an official statement endorsing the social media pressure – which in this case unquestionably was swept up in a mob mentality – is a dangerous precedent to set.

“This young man has succumbed to the pressure and has made the right decision to face the consequences of his actions,” Sergeant Will Hamilton said, after the 18 year old turned himself in. Succumbed to the pressure. That pressure involved threats of death and rape. I’m not surprised he succumbed to the pressure. Surely the police weren’t promoting the use of social media to hunt down and find young offenders? I called them to find out.

Right off the bat, Sergeant Hamilton said he was unaware there was even a photo but “anecdotally I knew there would be a strong social media interest surrounding the matter”.

He added: “Police don’t condone any sort of vigilante action. As much as we do appreciate any help that the public have given police indirectly in terms of this matter. We always ask that public come to the police with any new information they have at hand to assist us in our investigations …

“He’s obviously found out one way or another, whether it’s through social media or through family, that he is featured. Whether it was through censored or uncensored images, I’m not too sure. The wide electronic publication of those images, censored or not, obviously put the pressure on.”

So the circulation of those images is OK?

“I think in the right forum and on the right platform and issued by police, taking into account privacy and legislative restrictions, it’s appropriate. But ad hoc images I think should always be run past police or supplied to police to supply to media.”

Did he know where the image originated?

No I don’t.”

In summary: An uncensored image of four young men, all of whom look to be teenagers, was shared over 10,000 times on Facebook. Their full names and other personal details were also circulated. Hundreds of commenters encouraged violence against them if and when they were found in public. All this time the police made no statement on the matter and gave no details of the case to the public. One of the men turned himself in after all this and the police say thank you to “the powers of modern media”.

It’s lazy and dangerous, and next time it might not end so well for everyone.


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