How social media brings reputation risk for St. Patrick's revelers

While police are issuing their usual St. Patrick's Day reminders to deter students from keg parties or underage drinking, a University of Waterloo researcher says social media and one-upmanship can carry far greater consequences than the law.

3 reasons why a smartphone can deliver more trouble than the law for partiers

A rioter is silhouetted by a fire as he prepares to throw a glass bottle at police during a riot on London, Ont., in the early hours of March 18, 2012. By riot's end, 19 people had been arrested. (London Community News/Mike Maloney/Canadian Press)

A University of Waterloo professor who studies social media says students who drink and party to excess on St Patrick's Day face far greater consequences from their outrageous actions being documented online than from any ticket issued by a police officer. 

"You really don't want that photo of you throwing up in someone's rose bushes haunting Google searches of you forever." - Aimée Morrison

It comes as law enforcement agencies to issue their usual reminders student party goers ahead of St Patrick's Day celebrations in college towns across Canada.

Still, students have less to fear from a policing perspective than they do from a personal perspective, says University of Waterloo English professor Aimée Morrison, whose work focuses on multi-media and language.
Aimée Morrison is a professor of English at the University of Waterloo. Her work focuses on language and digital media. (Aimée Morrison/Twitter)

"You really don't want that photo of you throwing up in someone's rose bushes haunting Google searches of you forever," she said in an interview with CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition Thursday. 

The researcher then went on to list the three reasons why social media carries far more personal consequences to St Paddy's Day revelers than the law. 

1. Events can grow out of control

"Advertising events on social media or publicizing events as they happen can lead to events growing exponentially out of control," Morrison said, explaining some business owners have noted that when a student promotes their events online through social media, it can bring crowds of 300 to 400 people an hour.  

She used the well-publicized example of the Brampton, Ont. mansion party of 2014, where a 17-year-old youth advertised a party he was planning in a mansion still under construction.
As many as 2,000 people attend a party in a Brampton, Ont- area mansion on May 2, 2014 (Courtesy of SSalah/Twitter)

"He said he was planning for about a thousand people, but 2,000 people showed up and there was such a lineup of people that they were breaking the windows to get into the house," she said.

"The house was completely trashed and he called the police – on his own party – because it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger." 

Morrison said as the original invitation spread online and people started taking pictures and sharing them on social media, crowds started showing up just to observe the spectacle.
"We perform sometimes for our cameras or for our social media feeds. We're doing ever more outrageous behaviour so we can take a picture of it and put it online," Morrison said.

2. Performing for the camera

Morrison said the widespread adoption of smartphones with cameras means everyone is a photographer, which can compound a situation already rife with mayhem. 

People are always saying 'I didn't think it was going to spread' and it always does.- Aimée Morrison

"We perform sometimes for our cameras or for our social media feeds.We're doing ever-more outrageous behaviour so we can take a picture of it and put it online," she said. 

Morrison noted people will often share those photographs in an effort to glamourize bad behaviour, which can lead to others being copycats or engaging in one-upmanship to behave even more outrageously.

What adds to the problem, Morrison said, is that the portability of smartphones and the spontaneous nature of commenting and reaction on social media makes potentially embarrassing pictures quick and easy to share over a vast social network. 

"It's super easy to lose control of these photos. People will screen-grab Snapchats all the time. People will save things to their own camera rolls," she said. 

"We think that something we document is only going to circulate in the audiences that we've originally chosen for it," she said, but over and over again we see images and videos spread beyond that scope. 
Embarrassing student photos have gone viral, such as this image of students in 2016 dressed up as Viet Cong fighters wearing rice hats at an off-campus party thrown by Queen's University students in Kingston, Ont. (Twitter)

Morrison's point is underscored by a 2016 incident at Queen's University in Kingston, after photos appeared online showing white people dressed as Buddhist monks, Middle Eastern sheiks, Mexicans and Viet Cong fighters in rice hats during an off-campus student party in Kingston, Ont.

"People are always saying 'I didn't think it was going to spread' and it always does. So if you don't want that picture to be seen by the entire world, don't share it on social media," she said.  

3. Police use social media too

Morrison said anyone advertising a party or sharing their outrageous behaviour through social media also risks grabbing the attention of police, who, like all of us, use social media. 

"You can search Facebook right now and search for any events related to St. Patrick's in Waterloo, that's not hard to do," she said, noting officers are monitoring social media platforms using the same hashtags and filters students do. 

"It's pretty easy to monitor," she said. "If students can discover them, law enforcement can discover them." 

She said officers use the information to break up parties before they get out of hand and in cases where parties do go completely off the rails, officers will use online documentation as evidence in court.  
A burned-out shell is all that's left of a vehicle that was overturned and torched by students after a 2012 St. Patrick's celebration in London, Ont. took a nasty turn.

When a St Patrick Day celebration by Fanshawe College students in London, Ont. took a nasty turn and spilled into the streets in 2012, riots broke out.

Rioters pelted police with glass bottles, vandalized nearby properties and overturned a car and set it on fire, doing $100,000 damage. 

Police later used video taken during the riots to lay charges and Morrison said much of it was turned over by fellow party-goers. 

"Many of the people attending these parties disapprove of this behaviour just as much as law enforcement would," she said.  
Morrison recommends going to officially sanctioned events where someone else can take care of the policing and the cleanup, and your smartphone is less likely to get you in trouble. (Waterloo Regional Police Service/Twitter)

Morrison said she realizes students are never going to leave their smartphones at home, so she shares this advice:

  • Don't perform stunts for the camera.
  • Don't plan events on social media.
  • If you do want to party, go to an official event.

"Let somebody else be in charge of the policing and the cleanup," she said. "Maybe these private house parties are not the way to go."