THE ASIAN VOICE

Digital shame, Facebook justice: Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist

Social media logos at the Jakarta Convention Centre in Jakarta, on May 16, 2016.
Social media logos at the Jakarta Convention Centre in Jakarta, on May 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

Gideon Lasco
Philippine Daily Inquirer/Asia News Network 

We live in an age where, by means of a single social media post, the reputations of innocent people can easily—and instantly—be destroyed or damaged. 

All it takes is a name, a face, and a caption. None of the three needs to be accurate; the only requirement is that the caption is inflammatory and provocative. By the time the people in question get the chance to explain their side, many have judged them to be guilty. Guilty as posted. Guilty as captioned. Guilty but not even charged.

“Ipa-viral natin sya!” (Let’s make him go viral!) Like the mobs of the ancient world crying for blood, this battle cry calls for people to spread the alleged misdeeds of certain persons as a way of punishing them. 

Of course, there is no way to verify the original accusations, but this has not stopped people from believing and sharing them, further magnifying the damage inflicted.

Consider the recent cases of “doctor shaming.” One consisted of a photo and a video of a doctor sending a text message by a patient’s bedside. “Are you doctors like this?” the caption read. 

“Especially the doctors in this hospital. My sister was rushed to the Emergency Room. She was close to dying… And yet her doctor still does this.” 

The outrage was swift, and netizens quickly jumped to the narrative of heartless hospitals. Hurt, many doctors pointed out that interns—as unlicensed physicians—must continually update their supervising resident or consultant about a patient’s condition; the intern must have been simply doing his job. 

But by the time these rebuttals emerged, the damage to the doctor in question has been done.

Then there was the case of Sen. Leila de Lima, who was accused of reveling with convicted bank robber Herbert Colangco on the basis of a video of her singing with a man wearing dark glasses. 

Her office clarified that the man was actually Rep. Alfred Vargas—but judging by the comments, many seemed to stick with the original, entirely unproven, accusation.

In a country where politics has always been dirty, perhaps we can expect senators to view such low tactics as coming with the territory. But what of private citizens thrust into the public gaze in the most unflattering of circumstances?

This was what Nestor Punzalan experienced recently when he was implicated in the unfortunate death of a biker in a road rage incident in Quiapo. Punzalan met with severe online harassment after Top Gear Philippines misidentified him as the owner of the red Hyundai Eon that was involved in the incident, even posting his photos and Facebook page on its website.

The National Bureau of Investigation soon cleared his name, but the intervening period between accusation and exoneration was “traumatic” for Punzalan.

Top Gear editor Vernon Sarne accepted “full responsibility” for the incident, but Punzalan would have none of it, citing the death threats and hateful speech he endured. “They have to answer for their deed,” he declared, and vowed to file a case against the motoring magazine.

Getting “shamed” online is not the end of the world: The viral cycles run fast and very soon most of us will not even recall those incidents. Moreover, social media itself is often the people’s means for defense and vindication.

But sometimes the damage can be grave and far-reaching—not just for the accused but also for their families. Cyberaccusations easily lead to cyberbullying, which can lead to cybersuicide (i.e., deleting one’s social media accounts)—and even actual suicide. Even if social media offers a chance for people to respond, most of the time the original, inaccurate story gets far more attention than the updated, accurate one.

If Punzalan and others similarly aggrieved will file cases pursuant to the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 (Republic Act No. 10175), it will teach the public a lesson on online restraint. It will take months, if not years, for these cases to be resolved, but at least they will make people think twice before making all kinds of malicious or uninformed accusations.

But taking legal action should be the last resort. In the first place, how many people have access to lawyers, and resources for a lawsuit? Lest we become a litigious society, the best and more sustainable way to prevent online shaming remains education and awareness. Social media etiquette should be part of students’ curriculum—and parents will do well to guide their own children.

The media (and, for that matter, any social media page or website) must be held to account for what they post online. Often they are all too eager to echo unfounded accusations by making news stories out of them, even without proper fact-checking and verification. This practice must stop. Websites have to be reminded that with a great number of followers come great responsibility.

But even individual netizens have a big role to play. Refraining from posting (and deciding not to share) unverified posts involving other people can go a long way in keeping us from wittingly or unwittingly participating in the victimisation of others. Moreover, by supporting credible pages and not patronizing inaccurate and malicious ones, we encourage them to value credibility as a core tenet.

It is not too late to redeem the promise of a healthy social media environment, one that respects the dignity and rights of people. With all our individual and collective efforts—and with a little help from the rule of law—let us strive to regain an increasingly rare, but ever-precious, commodity: the presumption of innocence.

The writer is a physician and medical anthropologist.