Trial by Facebook

I was featured in The Star newspaper in their article entitled “Trial by Facebook” in January 2013.


Trial by Facebook
Posted: 11th January 2013 by R.AGE in Stories

By KEVIN TAN and ANGELIN YEOH
alltherage@thestar.com.my

MANY memes and posts go viral on the Internet every week, from harmless Chuck Norris jokes to the more factious Relatable Romney photos. Last week, it was a set of Facebook photos of a 13-year-old alleged rapist – complete with the boy’s full name, MyKad number and address.

One of the photos was accompanied by a description, written by the man who posted it, claiming the boy had allegedly tried to rape his girlfriend at a petrol station in Malacca. The alleged victim also posted a detailed account of the incident.

The post quickly went viral, appearing on various online forums and social networks even before the boy was charged in court. The police probe into the incident had not even begun.

One Facebook user commented: “Show the (boy)’s face! Embarrass him! And I guess most of us already saw his face!”

Another one added: “It can only get worse from here on. Well we all got this kiddo’s home address, lets go protest and harass the family. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”

Though the boy was eventually charged after a police investigation (and will now face a magistrate court), questions have to be asked on why so many social media users decided to share the photo – even though the case was not verified at the time, and involved the naming and shaming of a minor.

According to lawyer Foong Cheng Leong, the Kuala Lumpur Bar Council’s IT committee co-chairman, the act is firmly against the law.

“Under Section 15 on Child Act 2001, whenever anyone under the age of 18 is concerned; no mass media should disclose information related to the name or whereabouts of a child who is implicated in any offence,” he said.

Anyone found to have committed the offence of circulating an image or personal details of an underage suspect would be liable to a hefty fine, a prison term of not more than five years, or both.

Even now, photos showing the boy’s face are still all over the Internet. A comic artist even created his own “poster” using the photos, describing his anger at the incident. The poster was uploaded to the artist’s Facebook page a day after the incident, and has been shared nearly 30,000 times.

There have been several high profile incidents involving reckless dissemination of sensitive information over the Internet in recent weeks. A student in Kerala, India was wrongly identified through a photo on Facebook as the victim of the brutal New Delhi gang rape case. Her parents filed a complaint with the police over the incident.

Before that, Ryan Lanza hit out on Facebook after he was mistakenly identified as the gunman involved in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, US. His brother Adam was later revealed to be the gunman.

So, is the “Facebook mob” getting out of control? Is the quest on social media to raise awareness about crime slowly descending into anarchy?

Viral vigilance
For digital media expert David Lian, the Asia-Pacific digital lead for PR firm Text100, incidents like these are just an unfortunate result of the speed of the Internet.

“I don’t think any of these incidents were done maliciously. It’s just so easy to share things on social media now. A friend of mine shared something about a scam this morning, and I shared it too.

“It’s a normal reaction. Not everyone will have the resources to verify the stories, but when you feel it’s a life or death kind of thing like with crime, you just share it,” he said.

Indeed, Facebook posts about harrowing encounters with criminals tend to go viral quite easily these days.

In August last year, three men armed with machetes broke into Eric Lim’s family home in Serdang, Selangor. He rushed home from his office to find blood splattered all over the living room floor, as his brothers and mother who were home at the time had put up a fight.

Lim, 25, used his mobile phone to take pictures of the scene, which he uploaded to Facebook along with an account of what had happened.

Initially, he received a lot of well wishes from family and friends, never expecting the post to go viral. But in just a matter of weeks, the post received over 1,700 shares, and he was getting well wishes from complete strangers.

“When I posted those images and my story, it was all about raising awareness among my friends. I wanted them to know what happened, to hear my account first-hand. Hopefully, that will inspire them to be more vigilant.”

Marketeer Chin Xin-Ci, 26, understands this phenomenon better than most, being the publisher of one of the first high-profile viral crime stories. Chin was the victim of an unsuccessful kidnapping attempt in May last year, and her Facebook post detailing the experience got more than 10,000 shares in a matter of hours. The story became national news.

“When I first shared on Facebook that I had been robbed and almost kidnapped (this was just a couple hours after the incident), quite a number of my family members and friends were worried . So I thought I’d just write the note as a cathartic release, and also I wouldn’t have to repeat myself to every friend I meet,” said Chin.

Chin added when she wrote the note, she remembered what a policeman at the scene mentioned to her.

“A police officer told me I was lucky to have escaped. So as I wrote the note, I thought ‘maybe the thought process that helped me get away might help someone in the same situation?’”

A Facebook page called PJ Community Alert (facebook.com/community.alert) now compiles and shares posts like Lim’s and Chin’s to keep the public vigilant and help nab the perpetrators.

Foong however, is still worried about how often people are now sharing crime-related information without “verifying the facts”.

“Sometimes a social media posting could be defamatory in nature. It could be distressing for a person’s professional and personal life if others were to go around circulating such false information about the person,” he said.

Digital culture writer and consultant Niki Cheong believes most social media users still do not understand the ramifications of their actions.

“People are not aware of the laws. Protecting the identity of minors, for instance, is something journalists are familiar with. But now everyone is a publisher, but not everyone is equipped with this education or knowledge,” he said.

Another important issue, according to Cheong, is the blurring of “social ties”.

“Offline, our social networks are a bit more restrained. We are selective of our friends. We categorise them with labels like ‘acquaintances’, and we use these markers to help evaluate what they say – can we trust this person, where did she get this information, etc.

“It’s different online. we have become less invested in who our friends are, and we know less about them. Is he or she a gossip? Is he or she credible? Because we don’t have this background knowledge with which to evaluate online information, our judgement is affected,” he added.

Nevertheless, Chin hopes to prove that this viral effect can be used not only to warn others about danger, but to inspire kindness as well.

“After I shared my experience, a ‘crime-story-sharing’ trend kind of started on Facebook. It got a bit depressing after awhile. My friend, Khai Yong, actually came to me with an idea to start spreading good stories instead,” she said.

The idea became The Kindness Project, a Facebook page that shares inspiring stories of kindness from Malaysians.

“We want to remind Malaysians online that while there is a lot of bad in this world, there is hope as Malaysia is filled with tonnes of kind people, and we can all make a difference in our own way.”

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