How useful is social media in giving us a true picture of Sammy Yatim?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

It's going to be a while before all the facts come out on how teenager Sammy Yatim ended up dead on a Toronto streetcar from a hail of police bullets.

That hasn't stopped journalists and social media from trying to fill in the blanks.

There's nothing new about people wanting to know more about the victim of a tragedy or a criminal suspect, but trends editor Ishmael N. Daro's commentary Monday about Yatim's death points out a pitfall of the Internet Age.

Some on social media are using Facebook photos of Yatim and some of his buddies in tough-guy poses to paint a negative picture of the 18-year-old Syrian immigrant, shot down when he refused police orders to drop the knife he was holding.

[ Related: Streetcar shooting video not whole story, police union says ]

The images were posted on Reddit, which also hosted a vigorous debate about Daro's column.

For Daro, though, it was clear that some in the judgemental coldness of cyberspace had already written off Yatim, implying he possibly got what was coming to him.

“Now we know he wasn’t mentally ill, just a douchebag trying to act tough,” Reddit user machi88 wrote, according to Daro.

Yatim's Facebook page seems to have disappeared, replaced by others memorializing him and calling for justice in his death.

The Internet and social media have made it much easier to learn about people who otherwise wouldn't be in the public eye.

As a journalist, the job I hated most was trying to contact friends or relatives of someone who'd died in tragic circumstances, hoping to get some insight into their lives. My approach was always to go through an intermediary — friends or relatives — unless the family had already made themselves available to the media.

Regardless, I never escaped the sense I was intruding on someone's private grief to feed the public's curiosity, a feeling of embarrassment making those calls or knocking on someone's door.

Now, a lot of information is readily accessible via the web. But does it give an accurate picture of a person? Does it tell us much more than, say, leafing through a family photo album?

When it comes to criminals, online profiles are certainly useful. Online photos of Kimveer Gill, dressed in a long black coat and brandishing the gun he would later use in his murderous rampage through Montreal's Dawson College in 2006, seemed like foreshadowing.

[ Related: Amanda Todd was not internet obsessed, mother says ]

Then there's Luka Magnotta, accused of killing and dismembering a Chinese student in 2012. Helped by his considerable online presence, reporters quickly built a profile of a troubled young man.

But as CTV News pointed out at the time "as with all things on the Internet, it's difficult to tease out the fact from the fiction."

We should by now have learned to take much of what's on the web with a grain of salt. Whether by accident or design, how a person appears online is not necessarily how he or she really is.

Yatim's Facebook page was apparently sanitized after his death, removing a cover shot of assault rifles, Daro noted.

"This, of course, tells us absolutely nothing other than sometimes grieving families might want a say in how their dead child is remembered and depicted," he wrote.

"There is a difference between meaningful news that can offer insight into tragedy, and the peddling of meaningless tidbits of normal childhood. Sometimes Facebook sleuthing doesn’t actually advance the story."