Social media is emboldening and empowering citizens to engage in a brand of vigilante justice that is both unsafe and impractical.
Internet vigilantism, or netilantism, is not without its merits. Videos or photos of individuals engaging in criminal acts have been instrumental to bringing perpetrators to justice. Similarly, online vigilantes have kept law-enforcement in check with the threat of a phone’s camera or the posting of a video showing inappropriate law enforcement behaviour.
While providing information is valuable to law enforcement, taking matters into your own hands is not. An incident in the north Shuswap last week exemplified this perfectly when a group of people went to a residence on Hilliam Road to confront the occupants about alleged stolen property. The group retreated to the roadway after they heard what sounded like a gunshot followed by a man exiting the house brandishing a shotgun.
The drama has led to people commenting on photos of the residence posted on Facebook groups asking “Is this where we need to patrol?”
After a suspicious fire was found at the same residence, Sgt. Barry Kennedy of the Chase RCMP said the police are already doing that.
“We have been going out there every day trying to locate the people that were involved in the original file on Saturday and so far we have only managed to locate one person and we’ve spoken with them,” Kennedy said.
In a press release, the Chase RCMP urged people to not engage in vigilantism, but encourages residents to share information.
“It is extremely dangerous for vigilante justice in that you are not really sure who you are dealing with and their background and mental state,” Kennedy said. “From the RCMP’s perspective, we want the information from the public, we certainly want their help, but we don’t want them at any risk at all.”
When sharing information, we all have a responsibility to do so fairly. Online justice campaigns have been known to decimate the lives of innocent people who internet warriors have falsely set their crosshairs on.
According to an article written by Dr. Stephen Rochefort for VIE Psychology, vigilantes often do not understand the rules of due process or evidence, so if bad information is shared widely, the result may compromise a fair trial, lead to wrongful convictions, or cause a mistrial for someone who is a serious offender.
Cameron Thomson is a reporter with the Salmon Arm Observer