David Lian

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


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.”


This article appeared on Rage following my interview with The Star.




ONE fine day, Chee Yun Sam, a 22-year-old model, started getting a barrage of angry tweets and messages from his friends.

Apparently, Chee had posted something rather racist on his Twitter account, and a lot of people weren’t taking too kindly to it.

Only problem was – and you guessed it – he had no idea what he had supposedly posted.

Chee had become a victim of “tweetjacking”, the popular new prank that’s making stuff like wedgies and the ol’ chalk-on-the-chair trick like SO last millennium.

What happened was a friend of Chee’s managed to get his hands on his smartphone, and used Chee’s Twitter account to post a joke.

That’s how most tweetjacks happen. You “hijack” someone’s Twitter account (or Facebook) and post something embarrassing, making it seem like it came straight from the account holder.

It’s usually innocent stuff, like confessions of love for a mutual friend (or Rebecca Black, which is equally embarrassing), or probably something gross like “I smell my socks every morning”.

But unfortunately for Chee, his friends didn’t just post some innocent joke.”It wasn’t a laughing matter at all,” he said. “My friend posted something that was quite racist. And people didn’t know I was being tweetjacked! Some of them took it really seriously and were very upset.”

While we at R.AGE always love a good, harmless prank (like the time we moved Sharmila Nair’s car to a different basement level. That sure taught her not to leave her keys lying around…), it seems tweetjacking, Facebook-jacking (which goes by a rather more unsavoury term on the Internet) and all kinds of social media-jacking can quite easily get out of hand.

And given how integral social media has become to so many of our lives and careers, your next tweetjack might not turn out to be so funny after all.

Protect yourself!

Denielle Leong, 18, has been Facebook and Twitter-jacked many times by her college buddies and even her boyfriend.

“Well on Facebook you’d normally see pretty disgusting stuff like ‘I like to lick my armpits’. Or sometimes it’ll be openly praising someone who is hot. It’s very different on Twitter, for some reason,” she said.

On Twitter, her account has been hijacked by her friends several times to post some flirtatious tweets, which obviously led to some rather awkward responses from her male friends.

“Some people really do retweet and buy everything they see, even the most random things. It just shows how people online are so gullible,” she said.

But probably the main reason why social media hijacking is becoming so common, is simply because the opportunities are everywhere now. An idle smartphone at a party, a Facebook account logged-on at the college library, an iPad that isn’t password protected… They’re all hijacks waiting to happen.

Despite having been hijacked so many times, Leong admits that she doesn’t always log off her accounts after using them on laptops and computers. She might be making herself a prime target for another prank, but she says she doesn’t mind – as long as it’s nothing harmful.

Lawyer Foong Cheng Leong, 31, the Kuala Lumpur Bar Council’s IT committee co-chairman, agrees that social media-jacking is actually “harmless”.

The problem is – as it is with all pranks – some people tend to go overboard, inadvertently posting things that are too sensitive, or sometimes even unlawful. “Publishes that are unlawful include posts that are deemed as defamatory, seditious, obscene, malicious – the breaking of the law in section 233 of Communication and Multimedia act,” said Foong.

Basically that means if you post something as part of a tweetjack that breaks those laws, you – and the friend whose account you jacked – could potentially face a fine of up to RM50,000, a jail sentence of up to one year, or both.

And with the recent amendments to the Evidence Act, Foong says that social media users should protect their accounts and monitor their publishes even more carefully. “Now, all the more young people have to be aware of their publishes, because every post will hold the publisher (account owner) accountable,” he said. “Only the account owners will be considered as the publisher until proved otherwise.

“That’s when tweet-jacking can be a problem – if the tweetjacker does not own up and admit that he or she is the person who published the (unlawful) post,” he added.

But even if you aren’t breaking the law, a social media hijacking can still do a lot of damage. Imagine for instance, if your employer stumbles upon a tasteless joke on your Facebook or Twitter account.

Joshua Desmond, 26, who, funnily enough, works as a social media planner in a digital advertising firm, was the victim of one particularly tasteless tweetjacking.

“I don’t get tweetjacked very often, but it happens from time to time,” said Desmond. “The tweets are normally just for laughs.”

But then one day, the stuff got real.

A friend used Desmond’s account to make a joke about his sexuality, which most of his followers understood to be a tweetjack. But there was one friend who didn’t get the joke, and decided to tell Desmond’s parents about it.

“My dad just rang me up one day and asked me about it, and he sounded very serious,” said Desmond. “I still remember how upset he was when he called me.

“Even after I convinced them it was only a prank, they were still upset and told me not to let it happen again. It wasn’t something funny to them at all.”

Password protection

Apart from the odd prank that gets really embarrassing, or the unlawful post that could get you in trouble with the law, social media hijacking could also put your personal safety at risk.

Foong advises people to keep personal information like house addresses, mobile phone numbers, and PIN numbers off social media, because if someone was able to hijack your account to make a silly joke, someone could also potentially access that information for something more malicious altogether.

In any case, it’s important to not only protect your smartphones and to always log out from your social media accounts, but also to make sure you have a safe password.

According to Foong, there is actually a rather common set of passwords which people tend to choose from.

“Many people use common passwords like ‘abc123’, and those passwords are easy to crack,” said Foong. “Believe it or not, the most common password in the world is ‘password’.”

Unfortunately, Sarenraj Rajendran, 22, an American Degree Programme student, had to learn that lesson the hard way.

One of Sarenraj’s friends somehow managed to guess his Facebook password, but that wasn’t such a big deal. Things turned ugly when he found out that Sarenraj used the same password for his Internet service account.

As a prank, the friend made all kinds of changes to his account settings, and even purchased some upgrades – additional email storage and an online anti-virus package. They were only 17 back then.

“I got to know about it when my ‘hijacker’ friend went around telling other friends, and even presented the proof of purchase to brag about what he had done.”

Social media expert David Lian, the Asia Pacific Digital Lead of PR agency Text 100, says the integration between all the different forms of social media makes these hijackings potentially much more damaging.

“These days, all your social networks are connected. Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram… Even your email addresses. If someone has access to one of your accounts, they could easily have access to all your accounts.

“They could even have access to credit card information on some of these applications,” said Lian.

The problem with us running this story, of course, is that people now know that “Tweet-jacking may not be dangerous if people know the limit. But at the end of the day, everyone should prevent themselves from the risk of the dangers of it. This really taught me to really be careful when it comes to protecting my personal social media. I can’t let things like that happen again,” said Chee.

 Scroll to top