Another act in the social media circus

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Yet again, trial by social media is eclipsing due process.

Police in my neck of the woods, London, Ont., charged a man this week with assault, forcible confinement and causing a disturbance after a July incident at a Sobeys store.  The man blocked another customer — a visible minority — from leaving, while calling him an “illegal alien” and attempting to make a citizen’s arrest.

A part of this exchange was captured in a 30-second video, which amassed nearly 2.5 million views on Facebook, where it was posted soon after.

The footage was, as is so often the case, incomplete: it started mid-way through the encounter, which followed an earlier altercation — the details of which aren’t yet known.

Initially, the victim didn’t want to pursue the matter, though police laid charges regardless, publicly naming the suspect in the process.

Based solely on the video, it would seem charges are warranted.  But that isn’t for me — or any viewer — to decide.  Most importantly, I suspect there’s more to the story here, as there almost always seems to be in these cases.

Most of the millions who viewed and commented in the footage likely aren’t interested in how that story unfolds, if it does.

I doubt history will remember all too fondly those who merely whipped out their smartphones when conflict abounds.  Yet, increasingly, that’s the only contribution people are willing to make.

Instead of engaging with the world around them, people view it through their smartphones.

I’m not talking about app-obsessed kids, but adults who prefer to revel in the virality of a negative situation rather than do anything about it.

In fairness to the woman who filmed the Sobeys incident, she attempted to verbally interject, though to no avail.  She may have felt it would be unsafe for her to get between the two men, which I respect.

But with her, and countless others in similar situations, the instinct is to film.  Not only to supply police with evidence to aid their investigation, but to post publicly.

Another act for the social media circus.

Police are arresting a suspect?  Film it.  Someone is yelling at someone else?  Get it on tape.

Pretty soon we’ll be filming the filmers, creating the videographic equivalent of those Russian nesting dolls.

The “pics or it didn’t happen” trope has become a genuine tenet of existence, as if to say sharing an injustice on social media is the most effective way to combat it.

It seems to be replacing, rather than supplementing, actual crime reporting.  Several police officers have told me they often have to track down the people who post these sorts of videos, because law enforcement is learning about them as they go viral and not from actual reports.

This isn’t a free speech issue.  Anyone has the right to snap photos or shoot videos is public spaces, gauche as it may be at times.

As a writer, I understand the importance of documenting events — especially when the details are important.

It’s possible — desirable, in fact — to do this without litigating everything on the internet.

The Sobeys incident reminded me of a 2016 altercation at another London supermarket, involving a woman who punched and spat on a Muslim customer, whose hijab was removed in the tussle.  The suspect’s photo was shared by police and published in news coverage across the country, which characterized her as a hate criminal.  In actuality, she was an Iranian immigrant with severe mental health issues.

That doesn’t excuse her conduct (for which she was charged, but never convicted), but it shows how reality can be more complex than the easy explanation — that this was an anti-Muslim hate crime — adopted by social and traditional media.

The Sobeys case comes as illegal migration into Canada dominates the national discussion.

There is a tendency to fit everything into a narrative, as though nothing can be an isolated incident.  That’s why everyone views the story through the lens of whatever side of the culture war they’re on.

By posing the video, the rhetoric was given more power and exposure than it deserves.

This seems to be by design.  We don’t actually want solutions — just outrage.

It’s more desirable to become an observer or commentator on life than it is to live it.  In doing so, we invite others to shape the narrative, truth and realty be damned.

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton     @andrewlawton

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