COLUMN: Putting faces to the crooks and cranks

Thanks to Facebook, all three girls were named less than 24 hours after the violent incident, in numerous online comments.

You’d never guess by looking at their faces.

Young, fresh, pretty.

One wears a decidedly impish expression – the other has a tinge of toughness in her eyes.

Their hair looks recently salon-cut.

Both about 15 years old, they lean together for a photograph. Two friends out having fun.

Both have a middle finger extended to the camera. Oh…

Among the countless photos on countless Facebook sites, there’s plenty of bird flipping by teens.

It’s all about the attitude …

Except in this case, the gesture is reflective of something much darker.

These girls, along with a third, are accused of beating a 30-year-old man so badly during an early-morning melee at Mill Lake Park that he had to be airlifted to hospital. According to police, had the assault continued, the victim could have died.

In what is becoming increasingly common in the news business, it’s a race to get a news story online before Facebook is buzzing – most often with misinformation.

But frequently, mixed in with the rumour and confusion and conjecture, are bits and pieces of fact.

In this case, one didn’t have to be a seasoned police investigator to develop a list of suspects.

Thanks to Facebook, all three girls were named less than 24 hours after the incident, in numerous online comments. Some of them were even posted by friends, with links to the suspects’ Facebook sites, complete with photos. I guess that’s why they call it “Face” book.

Some of the posters probably didn’t realize their exchange had found its way into the public domain. Maybe they didn’t care.

In the Facebook world, there are profound variations on the meaning of the terms “friend” and “like” – as many users, especially youngsters, come to discover.

And so have the police. Social media is a powerful investigative tool.

Last week, a homeowner caught a crook on a video camera mounted in his garage. The guy made three trips to haul out tools – and took a leak on the floor on the last visit.

The owner posted the video on YouTube, and gave it to the police and the media. We couldn’t run it without obscuring the identity of the thief, who looked to be 17 or younger. As such, he’d be protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act. Publicly identifying him would be a federal offence.

The users of Facebook and YouTube play by different rules. The leaky bandit was “outed” in mere days. As it turned out, he is indeed a young offender. Off-limits to us – fair game for social media, which can be a very cold, harshly judgmental world. In this case, it was entirely deserved. But as many media outlets have experienced with anonymous commenting, the kangaroo court of invisible voices can be way over the top.

On that note, Facebook has been a major boon. The Black Press decision to require our online commenters to have bonafide Facebook accounts was initially met with much derision and criticism, most of it from the anonymous trolls who could no longer snipe from the shadows.

Predictions of rampant Facebook fraud and the exodus of commenters proved baseless.

As we find them, Facebook fakes are blocked. Commenting on our sites remains robust – and most importantly, for the vast part, it’s civil and on point.

Facebook and other similar social media have a host of downsides.

However, there are two examples of positive impact – unless of course, you happen to be a crook, or a crank.

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