Normally, this wouldn't be big news. Things burn down regularly in irregular ways in Montreal, and for the most part no one pays much attention. It's usually a matter of someone not paying their protection money to one of the many organized crime syndicates that ply their trade around here.
This time, though, it may be different. Early this week, the dealership was targeted by a Québec blogger, Gab Roy, who claimed that it had ripped off his friend Genevieve, an attractive former reality TV contestant. Apparently, Genevieve had placed a $500 deposit on a car at KIA Pointe-aux-Trembles, but she eventually bought another car at a different dealership. When Genevieve returned to get her deposit back, KIA Pointe-aux-Trembles refused to return it.
Gab Roy then rode to the rescue. Accompanied by Genevieve, Roy visited the dealership and got into a shouting match (viewable on Youtube) with the sales director who, according to Roy, pushed him into a wall. Eventually, after a long argument in which Roy alluded to his thousands of followers, the dealership refunded the deposit. On August 29th, Roy posted the recording of the shouting match to his blog, along with instructions to his "army of trolls" to attack KIA's webpage and to harrass them via telephone. A large caption in the video says, "Troll Army: KIA Pointe-aux-Trembles is underestimating you."
The trolls swiftly moved into action with e-mails, Facebook pages and telephone calls. Yesterday, Roy added a KIA Troll Awards post to his blog in which he named the top three trollers (see below).
This morning, the KIA dealership was, to borrow an idiom from French, "the prey of flames." Was this the work of Roy's troll army? Did the internet cause a dispute over a $500 deposit to escalate to arson? It is difficult to say--it's always possible that someone else could have had a score to settle with the dealership. Yet, interviewed this morning on the radio, Roy was backtracking furiously. He remarked, "I told my readers to write to the dealer...but my God...I never asked anyone to set fire to anything." He added, "OK...it could be that I was the match...but many people were unhappy with the dealership."
Most mainstream journalists realize that it is unsafe to mobilize people to target a particular individual. But on the internet, mobilizing hate and rage is still viewed by many as being acceptable. What obligations to bloggers have to protect the targets of their ire? Public discourse, especially in the United States, has grown increasingly heated, and there is a clearly a risk that this rhetoric will occasionally spill over into violence.
As Sarah Stitzlein has recently pointed out in this blog, recent dramatic manifestations of public rage (e.g. the Gifford shooting in Arizona) have prompted a demand for increased civility--the University of Arizona is establishing a National Institute for Civil Discourse. Stitzlein notes, however, that civility is not an unalloyed good. Forced politeness and cordiality can potentially help keep oppressed people oppressed.
Still, as the ashes of the KIA dealership would seem to indicate, there is plenty of room for caution.
For those who read French, Clique du Plateau has a full account of the story. The La Presse story documenting the fire is here.