This is the Life: Smile for the camera

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“That’s a job for the police.” Amid all the controversy and rhetoric in the aftermath of the post-Stanley Cup final game loss in Vancouver, that quote might have been the single most ridiculous comment I heard.

It was made on CBC Radio by a woman speaking on the use of social media to “out” participants in the riot, looting and arson. She spoke as though phone cameras, Facebook and Youtube are somehow isolated from the rest of society, simon-pure icons that shouldn’t be sullied by association with mucky things like illegal behavior.

Her comment was complete rot. No reasonable person would advocate the use of social media to be judge and jury, or to promote the harassment of individuals based on still photos or video clips. But does she think police use magic to put together criminal cases that can be prosecuted? That because they are the police they have some sort of special powers that force evidence to drop out of the sky?

The plain and simple fact is that social media are a part of today’s world and they provide one more tool that can be used to help make our communities safer. I’ve gone on record before about my distaste for those who choose to film ugly situations instead of trying to help, but the proliferation of cellphone cameras makes it incredibly easy — and fairly safe, too — to capture events as they happen, especially in mob scenes like the ones in Vancouver a few weeks ago.

A court is highly unlikely to convict an individual based solely on evidence provided by amateur “reporters”. But that evidence can be a valuable when used in combination with other evidence and testimony. And what about the empowerment such action provides to people who feel otherwise helpless to stem the mob mentality that caused such destruction? By filming the activities and making them available, those people must surely have felt like they were part of the solution where they might otherwise have felt disenfranchised by what was happening around them.

An interesting and unintended consequence of the filming of the illegal activities was the number of participants who turned themselves in to police after becoming aware that their actions had been caught on video. I suspect these young people are much more attuned to the power of the Internet, social media and instant messaging than the older generations that make laws. If there is anything we have learned in recent years is that governments are hopelessly incapable of responding to the lightning-fast changes in the Digital Age. That’s unlikely to change any time soon, either, because our systems of governing (there is no longer a need to have paper ballots or physical vote counting for elections — for that matter, there is no practical reason to prevent the public from voting on legislation electronically) but governments tend to reflect the interests of older generations. Don’t expect a federal government that has was elected by about a quarter of the voting age populace to invite the other 75 per cent into the process — self-preservation is a basic human instinct.

It was easy, not so long ago, to rant against the use of surveillance cameras by police or governments. Big Brother seemed to be getting too close to our personal lives. But now the surveillance is being carried out by our friends, neighbours and children, and the distinction between good and evil is becoming blurrier by the day. Is it fair to criticize people who only want to make their environment safer? Are their rights somehow less important than those who seek anonymity in a crowd to smash windows, torch cars and loot businesses?

Where all this amateur surveillance will lead is impossible to foresee. In the meantime, though, we should try to embrace its positives because it’s not going to go away.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.