British Columbia

The pleasure and peril of snitching on your neighbours during a pandemic

Those who study surveillance-based societies say reporting those around us to the authorities can have unintended consequences and tends to adversely affect minorities. 

Experts say reporting on neighbours offers a sense of control but adversely affects minorities

Keeping tabs on neighbours in times of social upheaval is a time-honoured tradition that some experts say can be highly problematic. (Shutterstock)

Alexandra Chauran was on a run with her children near their home in Port Moody, B.C., when a group of about nine adults and children caught their attention. 

Not only were they in a park closed due to COVID-19 precautions, they weren't keeping more than two metres between them. 

"I was just appalled and scared," Chauran said. "It's really important to me that the community pull together."

Chauran says she would have confronted the group directly but, as a cancer survivor and asthmatic, she didn't want to risk approaching them. Instead, when she got home she called the police non-emergency line. 

It turns out that Chauran's sentiments are echoed by many. According to data from the City of Vancouver, hundreds of people have called 311 with similar complaints and concerns.  

Alexandra Chauran and her two children were out for a run when they saw a group of people in a closed park who were interacting less than two metres apart. (Submitted by Alexandra Chauran)

'Restoring a sense of justice'

So far this month, 383 people have called the city about physical distancing. Another 852 have called about people violating park facility closures, including not physically distancing. And 1,558 people have called about COVID-19 more generally, including to say that the city should do more to enforce physical distancing rules.

By comparison, the topic with the largest number of inquiries in February — 4,836 calls —  was the municipal tax on vacant properties.

Experts say they're not surprised to hear these numbers. Citizen groups that help with law enforcement are nothing new, they say, especially during turbulent times like these when social norms have been uprooted. 

"It's restoring a sense of justice and balance," said Kate White, a marketing and behavioural science professor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. 

But Colin Bennett, a political science professor at the University of Victoria, says snitching on those around us can have unintended consequences that reduce social cohesion and tend to adversely affect minority groups. 

"Do we really want to be in a society where everybody's watching everybody else and reporting on their behaviours?" Bennett said. "Tolerance builds communities, rather than surveillance and watching and reporting on people." 

Sense of control

Psychologists like White say that calling out those around us for breaking the rules has long served a purpose, from an evolutionary standpoint.

White says snitching is meant to reinforce social harmony and cohesion, and right now social norms are changing so quickly that more people are working to make sure everyone abides by new protocols.

Tattling serves another purpose: it makes us feel better.

"It gives the person who might be making that 311 call some sense of control ... over a situation that they really don't have any control over," White said. "That's a really powerful psychological motivator right now."

Racist bias

For Bennett, the potential dangers of reporting on our neighbours far outweigh the benefits unless it's absolutely clear that rules are being broken and people are at risk.

Bennett says part of the problem is that snitching often plays into prejudice and racism. He says research shows that white people are more likely to report on visible minorities. 

"It feeds into an existing structure of power relations in our society," he said. 

Snitching is on the rise, Bennett says, and a large part of that is because of social media, where people can shame others anonymously and out of context. He also thinks it's on the rise partly because many people have extra time on their hands.

"This is typically done by people who have nothing better to do," he said. 

Compassionate solution

So what is a better strategy to address physical distancing rule-breakers?

Martin Schulz, a sociologist who studies organizational change at UBC's Sauder School of Business, suggests acting with compassion and consider that people are living through this pandemic with different needs and life situations. 

It may be harder for large blended families, for example, to stay at home in small apartments. 

Schulz also suggests considering that those flouting the rules may not be fully aware of rapidly changing bylaws and restrictions. 

"Very often people are not fully aware of what the consequences are and I think proper information has to be provided," he said, adding that governments need to do more to get information to different groups of people. 

"We cannot take this narrow-minded, petit bourgeois mindset of us tattletaling," he said.

"It's not what we really want." 

About the Author

Maryse Zeidler

@MaryseZeidler

Maryse Zeidler is a reporter for CBC News in Vancouver, covering news from across British Columbia. You can reach her at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca.

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