Vancouver Riots, Democracy and Gov 2.0

In my last post, I wrote about how Gov 2.0 has the potential to allow for a more authentic democracy where all citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Connected, informed citizens will no longer tolerate secretive and paternalistic government. I still believe this. However, my faith was shaken somewhat yesterday by the riots, looting and mayhem we had in the streets of Vancouver.

Gov 2.0 presupposes trust, and trust is a two-way street between government and citizens. Unfortunately, events like the rioting that happened yesterday undermine democracy and support command-and-control advocates in government, justifying to some the expansion of a police state. It paints a picture of citizens that need to be taken care of, to be controlled.

Image from yfrog/Lisa Johnson


Yesterday evening after the hockey game in Vancouver we saw the opposite of wisdom of the crowds. We saw the stupidity of the masses. Sociologists tell us that riots are fuelled by factors such as alcohol consumption, frustration, hypermasculinity, large and dense crowds, in-game player violence, and mob mentality. People lose their inhibitions and sense of right and wrong. A few instigators can be highly influential under the right circumstances. And that was what happened last night: a few instigators (some say organized) incited a riot that made a mess of downtown Vancouver.

On the other hand, Gov 2.0 empowers citizens. We are empowered by our voices, knowledge, connections, and ability to organize. Even in the wake of the riots instigated by a relatively few hoodlums, the people of Vancouver came together over social networks to share digital evidence of rioters to help press charges and to organize to help with the massive clean-up. Citizen’s started Facebook groups like “Post Riot Cleanup” (13,352 likes), “Vancouver Riot Pics” (75,333) and “Shame the Stanley Cup Rioters” (2,077). Meanwhile, on Twitter people expressed their outrage at the situation … and #embarrassment. So many volunteers turned up to clean up today (12,000) that many had to be turned away. Self-organization of citizens in this way restores my faith in the potential for Gov 2.0, open government, and the people that make it happen.

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Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

What concerns me about Gov 2.0 as a concept is that the horse is now out of the barn, and running, but the horse owner can’t keep up. The expectation of transparency has been set up. The expectation of rapid-response government has been set up. But the promise is not yet fully realized because the institutional structures, and the culture, needed to create this reality are still lacking.

As a consequence, the combination of free, easy-to-use technology that evades government control (such as BitTorrent, Bitcoins, Tor, and so on), a bad economy, anti-authoritarian culture, and disappointing leadership can unfortunately be exploited by terrorists and organized criminals calling themselves “freedom-loving antigovernment anarchists” and the like.

Normal, functional, stable democracies must quickly change and be more responsive. We must offer empowerment to the vast majority of the public – law-abiding, legitimate citizens – so that there is an alternative model for the disappointed and frustrated besides extremism. But we are moving too slowly.

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Profile Photo Daniel Honker

Thanks for this thoughtful post, Kieran. I hadn’t heard of the collaborative effort to clean up after the riots, but I must say it restores my faith in civic engagement as well.

The story of the riots + cleanup effort afterward seems to highlight something I’ve noticed about the way our societies work. Destructive acts tend to be very spontaneous, dramatic, and attention-grabbing, while they are often followed by recovery and cleanup efforts that are very purposefully organized, well thought-out, but much more low-key. I suppose good acts catch the spotlight much less than their destructive counterparts.

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Profile Photo Carol Graham

An excerpt from one of the Vancouver newspapers today…..”The consequences for people caught on camera during this riot have been swift and devastatingly public. Vigilante retribution via social media and online “name and shame” sites is delivering waht may well be life senteces to riot participants while the legal system is just beginning to work its way toward due process.” A couple of examples were given:

– a 17 year old star athlete photographed apparently attempting to light a police car on fire, has been filified online. His family had to flee thier home after their address appeared on line and threats started coming in. Additonally, he has been privsionally susp[ended from teh national water polo team, did not attend his high school convocations ceromonies this week and will soon be facing charges in court. The newspaper article also notes that although the photo of this individual holding alighter to the gas tank of a police cruiser has become one of the most unforgettable images of the riot, further vdeo provided by a bystander appears to show he did not set the car ablaze. (It’s an example of how indivual images may not tell the whole story).

– a university student photographed leaving Black & Lee Tuxedos with a piece of cltohing in her hands has been called out online by one university donor, who is threatening to pull his annual donation if she isn’t expelled

-a professional mountain biker was photographed during the riots with a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of a sponsor. He has since lost multiple sponsorship deals.

..”All will have a lot of explaining to do well into their futures….”There appears to be a profound disconnect between who we are online and in life.”

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Profile Photo Kieran Harrop

Thanks for your comments, Daniel and Dannielle.

Some very good things have come out of the disaster of the riot, not the least of which is a community self-organizing to clean-up and address civic PR damage control. You both may be interested in this Facebook album put together by a Vancouver photographer with photos of people cleaning up the day after the riot. This is just another example how citizens are using social media to do the job that traditionally might have been addressed by government. If it is citizen-initiated, is it still Gov 2.0?

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Profile Photo Kieran Harrop

Thanks for this Carol. As well as feelings of sadness and shame after the riots, I know that many Vancouverites are angry with the people who participated in the riots. We have to be careful that we do not make assumptions about the people who were caught up in the riot. Many were innocent and some did what they could to reduce the madness. We should not allow social media to determine culpability or to pronounce sentences in vigilante condemnation, but rather allow it to stand as evidence in the court of law.

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