Canadian water polo star and Olympic hopeful Nathan Kotylak learned the hard way that there's no such thing as a faceless mob anymore.
Kotylak, 17, faces charges of participating in a riot and arson for allegedly setting a police car on fire June 15 during the melee that broke out after the Boston Bruins won Game 7 against the Vancouver Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to a police report.
Several photographers and spectators documented looters and angry hockey fans in mayhem. Creating quite a buzz on social media sites and blogs is an image of Kotylak shoving a rag inside the gas tank of a Vancouver police cruiser. He looks ready to light the rag on fire.
But Kotylak was not the only one identified through social media outlets, which seem to have handed riot participants to authorities on a silver platter, putting names to faces in an online cornucopia of riot images.
The Vancouver Police Department said it has made 117 arrests so far, tipped off by more than 3,000 messages offering tips about the identity of those appearing to commit criminal acts. Of these, more than 600 messages came with YouTube links and 1,011 links to other social media sites, mostly Facebook. A YouTube video titled "Name That Moron -- 2011 Stanley Cup Rioters Exposed ("Ten Idiots")" asked viewers to help identify all individuals and email police with any information. The website Lamebook.com even offered several examples of people incriminating themselves in the post-Stanley Cup riots.
Social media has created a whole new world for law enforcement, and in some ways the police have never had it so good.
"The sheer volume and speed of the information is overwhelming," said Sgt. Dale Weidman of the Vancouver Police Department, explaining how social media offers new opportunities for investigators. "In a routine case we have a clear crime, and then take steps to identify the suspect and compile evidence. In these cases, we have names of suspects before we know exactly what they did and where they did it."
Since Kotylak is not yet 18, Canada's Youth Criminal Justice Act would have ordinarily protected his identity. His attorney, however, obtained a court order that allowed Kotylak to go public and make an apology on Canadian TV last Saturday.
"I want to apologize to my mom and dad," Kotylak said through sobs. "What I did does not reflect the love, values, lessons and great opportunities that you've provided for me, and I am very sorry to bring this embarrassment to you."
It's not as if Kotylak had much of a choice about whether to own up and go public. Soon after the riots, images of him spread around Facebook and YouTube. Classmates and acquaintances quickly identified him in pictures and video comments. Numerous blogs, such as publicshamingeternus, uploaded his picture on posts.
Bart Findlay, Kotylak's lawyer, told ABCNews.com that his client is "a good kid" who's had no previous run-ins with the law, not even a speeding ticket. Findlay said he couldn't speculate on whether Kotylak would've made a public apology had it not been for the images that flew through cyberspace.
"The web and social media is getting rid of anonymous behavior and creating a transparency," said Jason Keath, president of Socialfresh.com, which teaches people how to use social media. "If you want to avoid putting yourself out there on the Internet, than you can do so by not joining Twitter or Facebook, but if you're out in a public setting, committing a crime, then people are going to do that for you."
Online Anger Against Nathan Kotylak Continues to Fester
Facing criminal charges, Kotylak was suspended from his last days of school, missed his high school graduation and is at risk of losing his scholarship to the University of Calgary, according to his lawyer.
Pending the outcome of its own investigation and a formal hearing, Water Polo Canada has prohibited Kotylak from participating in any of its activities, according to a statement from WPC executive director Ahmed El-Awadi.
Since the TV apology, anger against Kotylak has continued to fester in such Facebook groups as "100,000 Strong to Ban Nathan Kotylak From the Canada Olympic Team" and "Nathan Kotylak Needs to be in Jail and Held Accountable and Tried as an Adult."
Direct threats have been made to Kotylak's family.
Findlay said the family had to temporarily vacate its home after its address was published online and people threatened to "pay them a visit." Nathan's father, Dr. Greg Kotylak, had to close down his medical practice for two days. "It's this kind of persecution that's taking place in social media that's leading to this mob mentality taking form," said Findlay.
Keath, the social media analyst, sees this as the negative side to the Internet and social media.
Whether social media is friend or foe depends on who's asking. For Nathan Kotylak, the answer seems clear.