Neighbourhood Watch

How social networks lead to racial profiling. Welcome to Canada's new virtual gated communities

Photograph by AshtonPal
Photograph by AshtonPal

My new east-end neighbourhood borders Thorncliffe Park, one of Toronto’s most densely populated immigrant communities and home to some of the best Pakistani supermarkets around. We’re steps from Danforth East and its Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Greek social clubs. The elementary school down the road has one of the most diverse student populations in the city. Residents of public housing homes and high-rises share the parks with new homeowners who’ve just dropped $1 million to live in a detached house close to the subway line.

This is what my corner of the city looks like on the street level. But its digital reflection, especially as seen on local social networks, shows a very different picture.

Old-school citizen-patrolled “neighbourhood watch” programs, advertised by their iconic street signs featuring houses with big, watchful eyes, are meant to be, by their very nature, conspicuous. Would-be thieves and criminals are supposedly alerted and thereby deterred when they know they are under collective surveillance. But what happens in a diverse city like Toronto when a self-selected group of residents takes to the Internet to share this kind of intelligence behind the presumably closed walls of a secret social network? These virtual gated communities, which exist in every corner of the city from Liberty Village to Kingston Road Village, have the troubling potential to split neighbourhoods—especially those still in earlier stages of gentrification—along the digital divide while raising tensions across the fault lines of race, class and privilege.

Before I moved to the east end, I joined two east-end Facebook groups. One was public and the other was not. I joined the invite-only “Pocket” community group hoping to learn more about the area and the people who share my streets, my grocery store and my subway station. The neighbourhood borders my own and is defined by its closed-loop streets that end at the TTC streetcar yard. It is located within the economically and ethnically diverse Blake-Jones corridor, and in 2012, Toronto Life listed the Pocket as one of the city’s ten hottest real-estate neighbourhoods. The volunteer-run community group is known for its work to beautify the local park and to rename an alley after the late street musician and long-time mayoral candidate, Ben Kerr. It organizes several events for residents, including movie nights for charity and block parties.

When I first joined the Pocket group, I was pleased to get useful insider information about local daycares and eavestrough-repair services. The tone of the comments on the Facebook group seemed friendly and appeared to come from well-meaning neighbours who took pride in their community.

This was important to me. In 2014, I’d just returned to Toronto after almost a decade in Montreal. When I first moved to Quebec, I was struck by how conspicuous I felt. My mildly passable French and brown skin often prompted questions about my origin, as well my assumed religion. (“Tell people that you’re American,” a friend once suggested, because then they would be far more forgiving of my shortcomings.) Even within the city’s youthful Anglo enclaves, which have a small-town, everybody-knows-everybody vibe, there were few faces similar to mine.

In the rest of Canada, Quebec has often been singled out for the blunt nature of its debates over minority rights. The province’s proud history of upholding its status as a nation within a country and the roiling tensions between its pure laine stalwarts and new immigrants have long been considered by many Canadian as anomalies in our national “mosaic.”

I lived in Quebec when the mayor of rural Hérouxville published his own anti-multiculturalism charter, targeting Muslim women by saying, “The only time you may mask or cover your face (in our town) is on Halloween.” The newsroom I worked in extensively covered the “reasonable accommodation” hearings that yielded a toothless report calling for Quebecers to take a more evolved approach toward integration. For years, as an educated, worldly person, I felt that I could comfortably handle the outsider status that I would always bear, no matter how long I lived in the city. And then, I gave birth to my son.

Soon after he was born, in the summer of 2013, the Parti Québécois introduced its Charter of Values. Most significantly, it forbade public servants from wearing religious symbols—such as the turban, hijab, niqab and kippah—with the exception of small, “inconspicuous” crosses. During the hearings, led by the newly appointed provincial minister for citizenship and democratic institutions, the atmosphere in the media and on the streets was tense. The minister even banned the use of the word “racist” by people testifying during the hearings, saying it was “unpleasant.”

Mercifully, the Charter soon appeared destined for the ash heap of history, along with the PQ and its historic rout, the following year. But when the newly elected provincial Liberals announced they might revive the popular push for the Charter, with some modifications, I knew it was time to move. I could handle the blatant double standards and the uncomfortable conversations, but I did not want my son to grow up in a province that would, at first glance, consider him a second-class citizen.

With its vaunted diversity and multicultural backbone, I strongly believed that this kind of systemic racism would never be tolerated in Toronto. Months after our move back, however, I was startled to find myself in the middle of one of the most heated and upsetting discussions about race I’d ever witnessed. And it occurred, of all places, on that seemingly innocuous neighbourhood Facebook group.

On a sun-dappled summer afternoon, a member of the Pocket Facebook group posted photos of black teenagers biking on a residential street as a warning, saying that she had seem them “snooping” into private laneways and pegging them as potential suspects for a recent bike theft. As I read the comments below the pictures, I was alarmed to find that a majority of Facebook group members appreciated her alert.

Again, the assumptions about the membership of the Facebook group were evident. The poster and her supporters were not concerned about the potential consequences of uploading photos of teenagers without parental consent. Implicitly, the move pre-supposed that the parents couldn’t possibly have been members of the group. These youth were black and allegedly up to no good. Never mind that the teenagers were not guilty of doing anything but being teenagers. What was worse, the Pocket Facebook group membership included a local community police officer, who now had access to images of these targeted teens.

My earlier misgivings about the nature of the neighbourhood group quickly returned. Under the neighbourly chatter, the local recommendations and friendly swaps, lay a layer of racial assumptions, coded messaging and micro-aggressions ready to be expressed but later vehemently denied at the first provocation.

Indeed, it was only a matter of minutes before that first defensive comment was posted.

Lauren Simmons, a high school teacher and often-outspoken member of the Pocket group, pointed out that this was the same group that just weeks earlier had “liked” the link to writer Desmond Cole’s recent Toronto Life cover story about being a persistent target of police harassment. But now, within the confines of this group, people were racially profiling minors and identifying them as potential criminals. Simmons, who is white, quickly found herself on the defensive against accusations of political correctness and incivility. Fellow residents failed to see her point.

“Racial profiling is not a Toronto thing,” wrote one poster responding to Simmons. “It might be a popular stance currently but a country that prides itself to have been the freedom of the Underground Railroad . . . we do not share similarities with our great neighbours to the south.

“We don’t segregate people of colour in Toronto and we do not tend to be a racist set of people. To assume your neighbour would be racially profiling is to assume she is part of the systemic racism she would have been raised in. And I am pretty sure that isn’t a position most Torontonians are (in).”

Fellow neighbourhood commenters did not take kindly to be being labeled racists, yet they saw no issue labeling those racialized teens as potential criminals. It was startling, especially as I had thought I had left these kinds of vocal, intolerant arguments behind. It had quickly become clear, however, that the smugly favourable comparisons between Ontario and Quebec, and now between Canada and the US, were far from sound. Toronto’s reputation as one of the most diverse cities in the world leaves its citizens with little inclination or incentive to examine the more discrete prejudice in our own backyards.

One after another, new comments kept popping up under the photos. Most were in defence of the original poster. Though some people did step up and support Simmons’ point of view, the attacks against her soon became personal.

To me, it was clear that the parameters of the prevailing discussion didn’t allow for a few simple truths: Everyone has their prejudices and perhaps we should take time to examine ours, especially because we’re neighbours—and especially because we live in Toronto, which prides itself for diversity and tolerance.

Social networks promise a free exchange of ideas, open to all and for all. The prevailing perception is that through collective movements like #BlackLivesMatter and awareness-raising blogs such as Humans of New York, we can transcend traditional power dynamics, leaving discrimination no place to hide. But in the real world, traditional power structures can be remarkably resilient in the face of this kind of change. And in this sense, it was only a matter of time before this new model of neighbourhood civility revealed itself to be nothing more than a virtual gated community.

At this point in the increasingly heated Facebook thread, you might ask why, as a brown person, I didn’t speak up.

The commenters appeared to be predominantly white and more concerned with how they felt personally offended, not how their actions may have hurt the teenagers or the community. In that moment, I felt the crushing weight that all outsiders carry when they realize that they have to be the one to draw attention to themselves, and to bear the burden placed upon you when you are assumed to be speaking for an entire race or religion.

If that was the price I had to pay to learn more about my community, I wasn’t interested. I had learned enough already and in a quiet instant of anger and hopelessness, I quit.

Toronto is far from the only place where these kinds of racial tensions find their expressions on social network groups. Suburban Fear is a Tumblr launched last year dedicated to reporting on online neighbourhood watch groups in South Africa that, it says, are “the bastion of white middle-class fear.” In a country still reeling from a painful legacy of murderous race relations twenty years after the end of apartheid, the problem is very real and very dangerous. “The page was inspired in reaction to a spate of racist incidents stemming from the southern suburbs in Cape Town,” the creator, who asked not to be named, told South Africa’s Times Live. His or her self-imposed anonymity clearly speaks to the risks involved in sharing these incendiary and deeply racist posts.

In several of the screenshots of Facebook group posts collected on the site, white residents use racial codes to describe unwelcome non-white visitors passing through their pristine enclaves. “Bravo” is used for a black person and the word “Charlie” connotes a “coloured” person. In several cases, photos of individuals accompany vague accusations, e.g. a photo of four black men on the sidewalk captioned, “4 very suspicious ‘bravo’ individuals, spotted walking slowly.” These kinds of racial descriptions “really wouldn’t help identify a possible perpetrator. It would be like saying ‘a white male in Norway,’” said William Bird, of human rights group Media Monitoring Africa in an interview with Times Live. The literally-coded language and surveillance-style images are testament to the fact that the ghosts of apartheid are alive and well—and in the machine.

Suburban Fear has tapped into another trend taking over neighbourhoods from South Africa to North America: the private social-network neighbourhood group. On its website, which features idyllic photos of black and white people sharing suburban pleasures like backyard barbecues and trips to the playground, OurHood calls itself “a digital networking platform that connects communities to strengthen neighbourhoods and build a stronger, safer South Africa.” As of September 2015, more than a thousand communities have created groups on the platform. These groups are not connected to existing social networks and members have to be vouched for by their neighbours, almost completely ensuring a like-minded group.

Nextdoor is a similar private social network based in San Francisco. Earlier this year, an investigative piece in East Bay Express, a Bay-area alternative weekly, told how white residents of neighbourhood in Oakland, California, are using the “Crime and Safety” section of the site to report on what they call “suspicious activity” by black residents. Reporter Sam Levin spent months talking to residents who shared posts from private groups and described an environment where black residents felt unsafe walking on their own streets.

In the story, the parents of two mixed-race teenagers expressed the very real fears they had about their children in a time of trigger-happy policing. “This looks like a good neighbourhood until you get on the Internet and see some of the craziness,” said Mitsu Fisher. His wife, Ann Nomura, added: “I have no assurance that police would not grab my kid for no good reason.”

According to Levin’s story, “White residents have used Nextdoor to complain and organize calls to police about black neighbours being too noisy in public parks and bars—raising concerns that the site amplifies the harmful impacts of gentrification.” Like the Toronto and South African groups, men of colour have been called out as being suspicious for walking down the street, hanging around bus stops and wearing hoodies. One black resident said he’s stopped jogging in his neighbourhood because he feared being pegged as a criminal suspect and another woman said that she was profiled in her own neighbourhood when a resident thought she was breaking into her own home.

Levin recalls an incident where multiple Nextdoor posters complained about a black boy who was apparently not picking up after his dog. After a woman asked for suggestions on how to get him to pick up his dog’s waste, a commenter suggested she call the police. “Not picking up poop from your dog is against the law—it’s a health violation.” Another person posted an image of the boy and wrote: “Here’s his photo. (The Oakland Police Department) might find this handy.”

“This,” said one African-American resident quoted in the story, “is how little Black boys end up getting shot.”

With the spectre of police carding and racial profiling looming large over Toronto, black teens in the city may not fare much better. Although no one can predict when such a tragedy will occur, we unfortunately have become all too familiar with the narrative of a black person killed under questionable police circumstances. Looking at the pictures of the young black teens riding through the Pocket’s streets doesn’t tell you much. Perhaps they are mischief-makers. Others had reported them for mouthing off when they were confronted for snooping around. But the question is, does any of that matter when the stakes are so high for racialized teens in the city? Criminalizing a young person not only carries heavy psychological and emotional implications, but, especially now, it poses serious life-threatening danger as well.

To object, in this case, is not as many would have you believe, a form of censorship. It is a plea to think twice about casting suspicion on anyone, especially people whose very existence is under constant scrutiny.

The deeper question is, how do we define neighbourhood? Who gets to be in? Who is assumed to be out? Who matters?

Challenging prevailing assumptions, even about unruly teenagers who may look and even act suspicious, is the starting point for broadening our notions of community. The problem with our virtual gated communities is they shut down powerful tools in social media that would help us grow and strengthen our connections.

Homogenous groups, whether they are on Nextdoor or on Facebook, are not known for suffering detractors gladly. The hive mind can easily turn defensive and hostile when confronted with criticism. In one reported case that made it to the South African courts, a Johannesburg-area woman who called out her Facebook group members for their racist remarks was verbally threatened by a neighbour who said he “would take her down.”

There is a false sense of security that comes from neighbours posting on a presumably private social network. The presumption is that others in the group share the same goals—i.e. “improving” the neighbourhood—and that the comments and photos posted are only visible to like-minded neighbours. These privileged discussions in secret Facebook groups, of which Toronto has many, do not give non-members who may share the streets a voice to express alternative views on serious issues such as policing, for example. In most cases, racial issues in these kinds of closed networks are only brought to light if someone speaks up outside of the group.

Psychologist and University of California Berkeley public policy professor Jack Glaser says racial profiling on social media is a reflection of what happens in real life, but with a significant difference. “This is definitely a social media story. In terms of the perceptual processes, that’s largely happening in real terms—seeing people and perceiving them to be suspicious. But on social media, they can share that information with a large group of people with lower stakes than calling 911. That creates a norm. When we see someone suspicious, we tell someone about it.”

Glaser, whose book Suspect Race examines the significance of racial profiling by police forces, says several studies have found that implicit racial bias influences decision-making. For example, if a certain group, i.e. black men, is associated with criminality, then non-consciously, race activates thoughts of crime-related events. “Social media is a catalyst more than anything else. It’s changing the nature of this kind of thing. Before that, people had to pick up the phone and call 911 and stick their necks out. The stakes are lower in a way. Psychologically that creates a more uncertain, ambiguous decision space. More likely to see stereotypical judgments. More accountability in real life, but none of that is present.”

It is a double-edged sword, Glaser adds. “The anonymity of the Internet allows people from stigmatized group greater access to things,” so people can speak up against racism and other can be held accountable for their harmful words. “But on the other hand, that same anonymity gives people a fair amount of cover to say racist things.”

Days after I left the Pocket Facebook group, I felt frustrated at my own inaction. How could I let people get away with that kind of overt racism? I didn’t want to go back into the fray, so I decided to write a story about the incident for the Toronto Star. As a longtime journalist who used to work at the newspaper, I’m aware of the privileged position I enjoy. Most people don’t have the ability to publish in such a broadly disseminated publication, and that may be one reason why they feel the need to express themselves so stridently in private social-network forums.

I’m familiar enough with the Internet and commenting threads on news sites to have anticipated a frustrating reaction to my story, which was headlined, “Do I really belong in ‘inclusive’ Toronto?” and appeared online with a giant full-width photo of me. When the link was shared on Facebook, readers saw my big head and the question right below. The comments below the post on the Star’s Facebook were almost universally negative. “Stop whining about inclusiveness. Are you an adult or an insecure child clinging to your mommy’s apron?” wrote one poster.

A day or two after the article ran, a friend I used to work with in Montreal shouted my name after spotting me on the sidewalk. She just wanted to say hi. I must admit I was startled because after reading the comments on my story, I felt kind of paranoid about walking around the neighbourhood. The response on Twitter was somewhat more constructive and supportive than Facebook. Simmons had posted screenshots from the neighbourhood Facebook exchange a few days earlier and had reached out to local activists. She retweeted the article and identified herself as the person who had challenged the group.

Because I had left the Pocket group, I wasn’t able to follow members’ reaction to the column, so I decided to lurk around a neighbouring group to get a sense of what people were saying in their own communities. “I Am a Leslievillian!” is a public Facebook group, which means that anyone can read comments posted on the site, which serves as a forum for residents of a rapidly gentrifying east-end neighbourhood to the south of the Pocket. This site has a reputation for somewhat strident and outspoken members who aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. Ironically, in the angry back-and-forth about racial profiling on the Pocket page, one tone-policing poster chastised their critical neighbours for being “very aggressive, very Leslievillianesque.”

Yet what I found on the Leslieville group was a significantly different discussion than the one I had been expecting—though it didn’t start out that way. Someone had posted the column on the page and commenters quickly started discrediting it by questioning the ethics of posting unattributed quotes from the Pocket discussion thread. “Not okay to take someone’s picture but it’s okay to print someone’s words without their permission . . . double standard, no?” wrote one poster. (I would argue, by the way, that the Pocket commenters were presented anonymously in my story. I didn’t post their names or profile photos.)

However, off the Leslieville page, another discussion was taking place, recalls Karima-Catherine Goundiam, who runs a Toronto digital agency. She was receiving messages from members of the group who were reluctant to post in the comment thread. “A lot of minorities were there,” Goundiam recalls. “but they weren’t saying anything. We were having a backchannel conversation.”

It was a conversation that Goundiam passionately believed should be made public. So, she rolled up her sleeves and jumped into the Facebook thread.

“I think I spent half a day trying to respond to people,” she says. “I’m wasting my time with it because I want to make a better world for my kids. I cannot fathom that 2015 is here and we’re having the same stupid conversation. When they’re thirty, they’ll say, ‘Why did you do this to us?’”

People on the Facebook page “will bitch about anything,” she says. So, Goundiam was used to rowdy debates. In fact, she welcomed them. Neighbours should speak what’s on their mind, even if what they say come across as offensive. “If you don’t say something, it’s worse,” says Goundiam, who self-identifies as black. “You’re going to have your own conversation in your head and no one is going to tell you the truth.”

What followed was a very heated, but mostly civil, discussion in which Goundiam and other posters, including Simmons, who is also a member of this group, explained the concept of white privilege and the importance of listening to the views of minority neighbours. The exchanges weren’t always pleasant, but the result was the creation of an online community diversity group with the mandate of staging an offline event so people could talk about these issues face to face.

Goundiam, who spearheaded the formation of the new forty-person group, says she wants her neighbours to echo their objections in person just as loudly as they did on Facebook. “Be consistent,” she says. “Be a jerk online and be a jerk offline.”

By the fall, the Toronto Star piece I had written was behind me, and I was starting to feel more settled in our corner of the city. Then I saw a tweet from another outspoken member of the Pocket Facebook group.

“My neighbours have formed a FB group to post photos of alleged criminals,” wrote Katy Pedersen. “There will be no comm to community about this.”

The new secret Facebook group is called Pocket Watch. It will no doubt have photos of black teens on bikes and unshaven types walking too close to parked cars. But who will be featured next? Young Muslim kids who run from dogs? Will there be any photos of suspicious people who look like the posters?

“Most people are a little more willing to say things in the Facebook groups that they wouldn’t necessarily say to you when they met you on the street,” says Pedersen, who works in the nonprofit sector. “It’s like, ‘I’m gonna post it and let it fly.’”

But the consequences are real and tear away at the fabric of urban communities. Social networks, and Facebook in particular, are not known for sterling privacy policies. No matter how private or secret the group, photos can be easily downloaded and shared. Do they ever even disappear? In our post-surveillance era, who can we reasonably assume is monitoring our Internet activity, sifting and sorting through people’s radicalized suspicions?

I moved from Montreal hoping my son would find a warmer welcome in this stridently multicultural metropolis. Based on our in-person experiences with people and places in Toronto, it still feels like a good decision. But my fears about his future have not really diminished so long as those around him—whether they’re in Ontario or in Quebec—quietly, and perhaps secretly, harbour racialized assumptions and won’t hesitate to snap and disseminate his picture for the “greater good.”

The impulse to watch and post is what propels Karima-Catherine Goundiam to take these discussions out of the virtual world. She hopes that emerging from the shadows of social media and into the broad daylight of her neighbourhood will have a positive and lasting impact. “People see me outside with my kids and say, ‘They’re so cute,’” Goundiam says. “But in ten years . . . they’ll be teenagers and you’ll see them [again]. What are you going to do? Call the police?”

Excerpted from Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity an anthology edited by Jay Pitter and John Lorinc launching in Toronto May 24 at Revival Bar 7 p.m.

Asmaa Malik
Asmaa Malik is an associate professor of journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University. Her research and teaching interests centre on equity and innovation in journalism.