By Christopher J. Schneider
Ten years ago, the city of Vancouver was rocked by its second hockey riot, which resulted in $9 million in total damages and related legal costs. On June 15, 2011, the Vancouver Canucks lost the last match in a best-of-seven series during the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. A riot started just before the decisive game ended.
The aftermath of the 2011 Vancouver riot triggered a major paradigm shift in policing, paving the path for the institutional police adoption and use of social media across Canada.
The 2011 Vancouver riot was an unprecedented kind of mass-mediated criminal event that unfolded online as it did in real time. The Vancouver Police Department (VPD) was woefully unprepared, referring to it as “the first North American social media sports riot”.
Indeed, social media were a distinguishing feature of the riot and, as with the more recent Capitol riot in Washington, suspected rioters were identified nearly immediately by members of the public on sites like Facebook.
In an academic study published in 2012, my coauthor and I referred to this then-novel phenomenon of identifying rioters as “crowd-sourced policing”, an extralegal process that targets individuals, collects their personal information, and identifies these people online.
Through our examination of more than 12,000 riot-related social-media posts, we detailed a seismic shift in criminal justice, where the pursuit of justice was organized, framed, and presented mostly by members of the public. This search for justice operated alongside police efforts, sometimes providing contradictory narratives to those offered by police.
For instance, the VPD initially insisted that the melee was caused by “anarchists, criminals, and thugs”. This claim was misleading. Social media instead revealed that some suspected rioters were middle-class adults in their late teens and early twenties, and among them were university students and Olympic hopefuls.
In my book Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media, I detail how police agencies like the VPD developed new uses of social media following the 2011 Vancouver riot in order to meet institutional and strategic objectives. This includes official police activities like the use of humour on Twitter, so officers appear more personable and relatable to the community.
The VPD was among the early police services in Canada to join Facebook, in 2008. However, the VPD’s efforts to respond and adapt to the riot using Facebook and Twitter were limited by their early conventional media strategy, which focused on unidirectional news releases rather than interactive public engagement that is more consistent with social media.
The 2011 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs was also the first time Twitter was used by the VPD for an event of its size and scale. The VPD did not even have an official Twitter account during the February 2010 Olympic games held in Vancouver—they launched the account in December 2010.
In fact, in early 2012, more than six months after the 2011 Vancouver riot, the VPD still lacked an official policy to govern the investigative and operational uses of social media.
The June 2011 riot attracted considerable public attention to the VPD’s social-media accounts, and by August, the VPD had acquired just over 17,000 Twitter followers. In the weeks following the 2011 riot, the Toronto Police Service officially launched its social-media strategy, and other police agencies followed.
Today, the VPD uses social media like Twitter to engage and interact with its more than 174,000 followers, a 923 percent increase in followers in about a decade.
What the 2011 Vancouver riot did, perhaps more than anything else, was influence the strategic implementation of social-media use across police agencies, a lasting legacy of the riot that has indelibly changed modern forms of police work throughout Canada.