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Sisyphus’ Lament

Road rage suspect: Can internet kill by mistake?

SINGAPORE—The internet could have killed Nestor Punzalan, owner of a red Hyundai Eon with conduction sticker number MO-3746. Threatening lawsuits is not enough to save the Punzalans of the world, though.

The CCTV footage from P. Casal Street in Quiapo, Manila, last July 26 went viral. A red Eon nearly hit Mark Vincent Garalde, an e-games attendant on his bicycle.

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After an unimpressive fistfight, the driver took out a pistol and shot Garalde, and kept shooting after Garalde was already lying on the ground. A stray bullet critically wounded 18-year-old Rocel Bondoc, an orphan and scholar at Universidad de Manila.

Watching the CCTV footage was surreal. The Inquirer reported that bystanders were cheering the visibly angry pair. The Eon drives away before it belatedly registers that one just witnessed a murder.

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Emotional citizens combed the video for clues. The case appeared solved when Top Gear Philippines posted a photo of Punzalan’s Eon and traced the conduction sticker. Punzalan soon received death threats on social media.

The following day, though, police identified Vhon Tanto as the suspect, an Army reservist and owner of a red Eon with conduction sticker number MO-3745, not 3746! Punzalan surrendered, afraid for his life, and was cleared by both police and the National Bureau of Investigation. Tanto was eventually arrested in Masbate on July 29 and confessed.

Punzalan’s case is mild, though, compared to the confusion after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 16, 2013. Internet detectives combed through photos, analyzing bystanders’ facial expressions and the brands of their backpacks. Reddit estimated it had 272,000 readers when suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested, with 85,000 in a single post on the online manhunt.

Unfortunately, they were worse than helpful.

Reddit users identified Brown University student Sunil Tripathi as one of two suspects because his name was heard on a police scanner frequency. However, he had actually gone missing and was later found to have committed suicide due to depression. Reddit took down the manhunt thread and apologized profusely to Tripathi’s family and other misidentified suspects.

The confusion extended to mainstream media. After the internet circulated the picture of 17-year-old spectator Salaheddin Barhoum as a suspect, it became the next day’s New York Post cover. The day after the bombing, CNN and others reported a suspect was about to be arrested. The Boston Police Department had to deny this on Twitter and later asked citizens to stop tweeting information from police scanners.

So how can the Punzalans of the world save themselves from internet witch hunts?

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One might impulsively turn to law. What about a cyberbullying lawsuit, as floated in past incidents involving Chris Lao, whose floating car turned him into a flood insurance endorser and freedom of information advocate, and the Amalayer girl? But the Anti-Bullying Act of 2013 applies to schools and students, not presumably responsible adults.

What about cyberlibel? Philippine law protects citizens who comment on persons who become intertwined with an issue of public interest, such as a prominent shooting. We protect such comments as though they were comments on government officials. Under the “public figure” doctrine, we require proof of “actual malice,” beyond mere error, before such commenters are punished.

Thus, a judge may conclude that Punzalan’s accusers were irresponsible and outright stupid, but not malicious to the point that they must be legally punished. They genuinely thought they found the right car and were doing a civic duty, even if they turned out mistaken.

The rule must be the same for all situations and a judge would be wary of scaring away discussion on, for example, who the alleged drug lord in a fuzzy video from a politician’s party is. Of course, one may disagree and insist that naming Punzalan without further fact-checking is so reckless that it should be punished even under the “public figure” doctrine’s high bar of actual malice.

Nevertheless, legal deterrents are clearly inadequate. They do nothing before the damage is done and should not punish every single person who casually spread a rumor.

Perhaps more broadly, we need to accept how easily misinformation spreads today. Perhaps we should have learned our lesson after an election where half truths and bizarre memes flew thick and fast, all the way to a weeklong national debate on whether the Wharton School has undergraduates in addition to MBAs.

Some social media accounts rival mainstream media networks in reach, but with none of the accountability or training. As the Reddit detectives learned, having a smartphone and an opinion do not instantly turn one into a journalist. We must remember this as newspaper budgets come under increasing pressure and we unwittingly force journalists to subsidize this key public good called truth or outsource the job to amateurs, at the risk of the Punzalans of the world.

Governments, beyond media, now need to manage social media proactively. If the Boston police firmly rebuked even CNN reports, perhaps ours need to consciously quash internet rumors even as investigations proceed. The Metropolitan Manila Development Authority’s Twitter @MMDA account might be a model for being informative, humorous and credible, down to reminders not to get hit by a bus while playing Pokemon Go.

Ultimately, the world would be a better place if we remember not to believe everything on the internet. One wonders what we need to put in our school curricula, our law books or our drinking water to achieve that.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan

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TAGS: internet, Nestor Punzalan, opinion, Road rage, Top Gear, Vhon Tanto, viral
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