Salt Lake City’s online complaint page is clear. People who see others violating stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules are to report what they see, but not because this will result in anyone’s arrest. The complaint page is intended to let the city know where it might need to place more signs or where it might need to close a public place.

Still, the danger with any sort of public emergency such as the current pandemic is that vigilantism will rear its ugly head. People are afraid, and when they become afraid they can become unreasonable and cruel.

“Shunning and shaming” is what The Wall Street Journal calls the behavior of many people on social media. In Lake Forest, Illinois, a large family went for a walk with their dog near their home. Next thing they knew, their photo was on the town’s Facebook site, along with several comments calling them “stupid,” among other things.

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The danger, of course, is that such posts lead people to make assumptions without any evidence. “I think a lot of people are really scared, and the only way they can get some sense of security is to try to police other people,” one of the family members told the Journal, adding that the entire family lives together and hadn’t been out of their home in two weeks.

The same type of thing happened during recent droughts. Some cities in California encouraged people to report on each other via social media, the opposite of what Salt Lake City is urging people to do. That sort of thing divides communities at a time when people need to rally together for a cause.

Unfortunately, social media tends to forge its own paths independent of what governments may desire.

There are better ways. Google and Apple are working on apps that will let health authorities keep track where people are congregating, alerting them to where potential hotspots might exist. Also, these could alert people when they might have had contact with someone who tested positive for the virus, using data collected via Bluetooth from an infected person’s phone.

That app would involve voluntary usage by people willing to report they have been infected. It also raises a host of privacy concerns, although producers insist information will be aggregated and anonymous.

Google and Apple are collaborating on these efforts and are exploring ways to get the app into as many phones as possible. At best, this technology could help governments reopen the economy in gradual and safe ways. At worst, hackers might hijack the information or mimic the apps to cause harm. 

If recent history teaches anything, it is that some people are limitless in their desires to do mischief. Also, glitches can occur. Utah’s efforts to get people to fill out travel declarations were canceled this week after encountering technical problems.

Still, technology, not mob action, remains the nation’s best hope for coping with COVID-19 and the return to a more normal existence as soon as possible. County health departments could adapt the work being done by Google and Apple and use the data to surgically bring attention where it is due, thus giving people some peace of mind.

Fear and suspicion ought to be considered enemies almost as dangerous as the virus, itself. Complaint pages such as Salt Lake City’s are fine so long as they are followed as intended. The goal should be voluntary compliance out of a common sense of community and humanity.

That sort of spirit is necessary for repairing the damage caused by this pandemic as quickly as possible.