Last week an Oshawa jury found a young man named Jacques Amakon guilty of manslaughter in the March 30, 2010 killing of fellow Dwyer Catholic High School student Michael “Biggie” MacDonald. Viewed dispassionately with all of the advantages of hindsight, the tragic event was entirely predictable – its preventability in the age of all-consuming social networks is a more troubling question.
The rivalry that spawned active hostilities between Amakon and MacDonald was the gurgling adolescent soap opera that played across the virtual Dwyer student landscape during the winter of 2010. A school-bred dispute that took a bitter visceral turn was Act I; male bravado and slights real and imagined engaged the audience through Act II; an inconclusive hallway tussle that led to mutual academic suspensions and vowed revenge framed Act III. A penultimate exchange of threats during a chance encounter March 29 roared across Facebook the same night, amplified through repetition by school peers eager for more. The deadly Act IV encounter the next day was witnessed by dozens of Dwyer students, some armed with cell phones ready to record the next instalment in what had been a compelling drama. The homicide trial provided a perfect if unexpected Act V dénouement.
It is the Dwyer student crowd and its all-pervasive digital presence on the margins of this tragedy that is the most disturbing takeaway. Just as the Chorus represented shifting public opinion in the great Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides, the Dwyer student community was the ever-present Facebook audience in the personal theatre generated by Amakon and MacDonald. The evidence tendered at trial confirmed that for weeks prior to the killing, each protagonist played to their i-Phone accessible peers, seeking to influence local public opinion in their favour against the other. When Amakon crossed Rossland Road to confront MacDonald a final time, a steak knife conveniently in hand, the students that waited for “the fight” were not mere bystanders or a random assemblage of kids drawn against their will into a terrible vortex of death and wasted lives. These were the Facebook followers that knew the entire narrative off by heart, a throng that now waited expectantly for the next episode to be delivered live on demand. Dozens of students gravitated to the bus stop where they jockeyed for prime position; one climbed on top of the nearby shelter to score a premium seat. This was the big show – the great entertainment promised in the earlier scenes. Three Dwyer students recorded the MacDonald killing on their cell phones, not as concerned citizens determined to report terrible violence to the police, but to store the rocket fuel needed to power the next round of provocative postings about “Junior” and “Biggie”. As one of these students phrased it, everybody pulls out their cell phones when a fight is on – no big deal.
The local news media played their part after MacDonald was killed and Amakon was charged with second degree murder. When the trial commenced in early 2012, ‘Biggie Murder Trial’ was the name Oshawa This Week gave the web portal where all of its online coverage could be accessed. In an earlier age, such a description would be derided as highly irresponsible and an affront to ethical journalism. The editorial decision to combine the deceased MacDonald’s affectionate nickname with a legal conclusion – murder – does its own violence to the presumption of innocence, and it left little doubt about where the newspaper stood on the trial merits. The jury verdict proved otherwise, but in the immediacy of digital communication, ‘Biggie Murder Trial’ is a nice, short, and evocative snippet of information cast with impunity into the shallow waters of the digital community. And like the Facebook medium itself, the newspaper trial coverage portal evidenced a lesser concern for rigorous attention to fact or propriety. This Week did its best to play to its crowd and generate its own edgy, provocative buzz, standard operating procedure in the dummied down Facebook brave new world.
A young man was killed as the dramatic climax; a high school play gone ferociously wrong. His family suffered a terrible loss. Amakon faces a lengthy prison term, his own life now irretrievably altered. What of the crowd? Maybe there would have been a deadly confrontation if the two adversaries had simply hated each other in the old fashioned ways of pre-digital conflicts, each with his own allies in the Dwyer hallways and student hangouts to carry the message to the enemy. One wonders if any of the socially networked students that saw MacDonald die in the bright late March sunshine ever questioned their undoubted role as accelerants in the conflagration of emotion that contributed to his death. The question is answered as soon as the words are formed. Introspection is not a hallmark of the Facebook world and its youthful inhabitants.
The social networks revealed by these grim events confirm human interaction at its most self-indulgent, where entertainment and excitement are standards that these young voyeurs plainly regarded as their right. The deeper issues remain strangers to the Dwyer Facebook constituency that wanted to see a good fight between two arch-enemies. Stark unyielding hatred was something to gossip about, where the community can take sides without ever taking risks, and never feel the slightest twinge of conscience that a dangerous problem in the heart of their school community needed a solution, not digital chatter. Biggie and Junior were a great texting topic, just as the “Biggie Murder” was great media – until something more interesting came along.
Two lives, one death, and a jury verdict – no firm conclusions about the future of Canada’s youth ought to be extrapolated from this single example. It is the feelings of unease and apprehension that are entirely legitimate. If the Dwyer student community is an indicator, the power of modern communication networks has exploded in a bizarre inverse proportion to the ability of digital users to make logical connections of cause and effect concerning their contributions to a toxic peer environment. Jacques Amakon killed Michael MacDonald in a violent endgame to a nasty rivalry that played out for weeks in the immediate Facebook community. It is likely that the MacDonald and Amakon families will have tremendous trouble moving on from such an utterly senseless sequence of events. One suspects that for the Dwyer Chorus, safely and securely tethered to their almighty digital devices, moving on has not been difficult at all.