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Outraged over the Vancouver riot, following the Stanley Cup finals, thousands headed online and called out participants. Were they helping the police or being vigilantes?

Social media: Tool for justice or vigilantism?

The Stanley Cup finals got a lot of social media attention – and not all of it was good.

According to a report from the social media blog Mashable, the NHL was sixth on its monthly Top Twitter Topics list. After not cracking the top 10 in May, the National Hockey League ended June just behind Soccer/football, Father's Day, the NBA Finals, Canadian singing sensation Justin Bieber and his girlfriend, singer/actress Selena Gomez.

What prompted the surge? A dramatic seven game finals series, won by the Boston Bruins over the Vancouver Canucks, certainly helped. During the playoffs, the NHL was a trending topic in cities with teams as well as several Canadian centres. However, it was the riots in downtown Vancouver after the Bruins' game seven triumph and the aftermath that really had an impact online. It has led to worldwide discussions on vigilante justice and the social media's role.

In the June 15 riot, which lasted for several hours, cars were set ablaze, stores were looted and windows were smashed, along with other activities. About 150 people were injured and there were more than 100 arrests made, according to a June 22 Canadian Press article. During the riots, there were reports of Twitter and Facebook posts encouraging people to come down and join in the action.

After the event, outraged citizens headed online. Using Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, groups were quickly formed to recruit people to clean up the mess. "Once the embarrassing riot has ended in Vancouver, let's all show the world what Vancouver is really about by helping rebuild and clean up so it's better than it was before," read the Facebook page of the Post Riot Clean-up – Let's Help Vancouver group. Thousands would turn out to assist.

Many people also went online in an effort to bring rioters to justice. Groups identifying people allegedly involved in the action sprung up quickly – such as the canucksriot2011 website and Facebook groups like Report Canucks RIOT Morons.

Many sites and individuals sent photos to the Vancouver Police Department, which asked for the pics. However, the department and canucksriot2011 both reported some of the images received have been altered by programs such as Photoshop. Some of the images show rioters in Montreal or London while at least one had a man pasted in front of flames on what could be a Vancouver street, according to a June 23 Globe and Mail article.

It obviously takes time for the police and legal system to build cases and take action in these cases. However, many people sought out their own justice by making online comments or, after phone numbers or addresses were posted, going even further.

"There have been examples of citizen vigilantism in the past, there is nothing new in that regard," said Josh Greenberg, a social media specialist at Carleton University in Ottawa, in the Canadian Press article. "What I think is different with the current case is the speed at which it is happening, the ubiquity and the visibility."

A 17-year-old junior national water polo player was targeted with a Facebook group called 100,000 strong to ban Nathan Kotylak from the Canada Olympic Team. In a June 19 Postmedia article, the family said they were forced to leave their home after the address was posted online.

In the same story, it was reported that pro mountain biker Alex Prochazka has lost sponsorship after photos of him in the riots were posted. A University of British Columbia donor allegedly threatened to withdraw his annual donation if a female student photographed leaving Black & Lee Tuxedos with clothing in her hand is not expelled. The website of PSFK, which focuses on trend research as well as publishing news, reported that a carpenter was fired for stating on his Facebook page that "Vancouver needed remodelling anyway."

"The way the Internet works in creating models that are reproduced, well it just makes you shudder what it could be used for," said Alexandra Samuel, a director of the social and interactive media centre at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver. "When you have people saying you could have something that runs in parallel with the justice system then it leads to the question – why would you need a justice system? The shaming and firing – it is medieval."

One of the organizers of the Facebook group against Kotylak believes this is an important time for defining social media's role. While Jeromie Williams said the group removes threatening comments and does not endorse a lynch-mob mentality, he stated in the PSFK story, "After what happened this is a litmus test for events around the world ... where people are caught on camera. I think we are in the position to lead the charge in encouraging people not to do these kind of things."

While the NHL finals determined the Stanley Cup champions, the aftermath of the Vancouver riot could have an even bigger impact on the role of social media.

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