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Passion For Reason

A video gone viral on Facebook

He forged through the flooded Mother Ignacia Street in Quezon City on Wednesday afternoon, and his car stalled and floated. Caught on camera and interviewed on television, he foolishly blamed the government and the passive crowds for not warning him about the depth of the floodwaters. In a few hours, he was an Internet sensation, the eighth most discussed Twitter topic worldwide.

I have seen at least two Facebook accounts dedicated to him, both carrying his name, obviously meant to expose him to ridicule.  The first account was registered in his name, followed by the words “ang bobong sinugod ang kotse sa baha.” The second was registered under the name “Kwento mo sa lumutang na kotse ni” (followed by his name). The “ang bobo” account showed that some 25,000 people “liked it” within a fewer hours from posting.

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People have long made nasty, personal and low blow comments on other peoples’ foibles, but the new media has made it easier to disguise schadenfreude as communal outrage. You can spread your vile with more people, much faster, and make it linger much longer and, if you wish, with the benefit of anonymity.

The usual constitutional safeguards against defamatory speech become useless. There’s the threshold problem of attribution and plausible deniability: “Who me? I didn’t post that.” Then there’s the requirement of “publication,” which is met at the moment the insult is heard or read by another person. Yet apparently some judges think that an insult spread online is not as bad as an insult spread literally by word of mouth. Finally, in the case of the Mother Ignacia driver, he had allowed himself to be interviewed on TV and had thus “voluntarily thrust” himself onto the public stage (called the “public figure” exception), making his case legitimate fodder for public scorn.

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I feel strongly that this case shows how the new media and social networks can unleash our worst selves. Indeed I hesitated to write about it because in doing so I would only lend my hand to the cruelty of others. In other words, on top of the 25,000 Facebook members who joined in condemning the Mother Ignacia driver, I could potentially enlist the readers of both the paper and digital versions of the Philippine Daily Inquirer in the cruel roasting of the Mother Ignacia driver.

Thus the strange dilemma. To stand up against malevolence is to make it even worse. To neutralize the insult is to compound it. But I resolved to write about it first, by at least taking the precaution of not writing the name of the Mother Ignacia driver (though that is small comfort to him by now), and second, only after former UP law dean Marvic Leonen had already issued his own statement (quoted on GMA TV’s website) defending the driver and likewise identifying him by name as a recent graduate of the UP College of Law. He said: “You may be amused by the mistakes or misfortunes of others. But this does not entitle you to degrade their entire character or make conclusions about their whole person.” I wholly agree—and many Facebook members have since re-posted his comments.

Already GMA News Online’s Howie Severino, editor in chief, has appealed to stop the cyber bullying. The driver, he said, “was already victimized by the flood and a lack of warnings. He shouldn’t be victimized again. Many of us could have been in his situation. We are urging the public to stop the insults, as this has become a case of cyber bullying. We regret that our video, which was meant to provide a lesson for all motorists, was used in any way to make fun of another person.”

I must agree though with one reader’s reply: “Honestly, GMA, the way you edited the news was more like you intended to have it look funny and at [the driver’s] expense.”

As of this writing (mid-day on Thursday), it looks like we see the turning of the tide. One Facebook account has been taken down (or at least the earlier comments had all been erased). That is much faster than the turnaround during the last case of near universal flaming against then Agrarian Reform Secretary Nasser Pangandaman in the Valley Golf incident. The original post was entitled “Two politicians beat up defenseless old man and his son in a golf club.” It said: “I swear to God, I thought golfers were decent peoples [but] I guess [politicians would] gang up on 56-year-old men and beat up pleading 14-year-old kids. …Please pray for my dad, my brother and for my whole family. Please pray that we get JUSTICE [in all caps]. Oh God, please, give these people what they deserve.”

A torrent of the unkindest, even racist and anti-Muslim comments were made about Pangandaman (similar to the racist innuendoes against the Mother Ignacia driver). And yet the charges were not only false, they were the reverse of the truth! As ascertained by Valley Golf’s own neutral investigation, the “victims” provoked the altercation, and indeed had such a bad history in the club that they were afterwards stripped of their membership. Unfortunately, the law couldn’t offer the Pangandamans any remedy whatsoever for their ordeal, except the proverbial salve of a clean conscience.

When Holmes spoke of the “free marketplace of ideas,” he couldn’t have imagined free speech gone berserk in the 21st century. Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times the essay “Reputation: The Whole World is Watching.” He quoted a writer on business ethics: “My generation got to screw up and none of those screw-ups appeared on our first job resumes.” But for today’s youth, their “digital fingerprint never gets erased.” In the old days, editors and publishers embodied the “brooding omnipresence” of a public morality. The new media merely freed us to express our baser selves.

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TAGS: facebook, featured columns, Floods, internet, new media, opinion, social networks
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