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Editorial

Online, out of line

/ 12:26 AM August 18, 2016

Imagine opening your Facebook account, only to be bludgeoned by a string of epithets and vicious comments, cruel memes, and threats of bodily harm. Your photo and that of your car stare back at you. Remember his face, the post says.

Such was the ordeal that Nestor Punzalan had to endure last month when he was misidentified as the man who shot a biker dead over a traffic altercation. Turns out the gunman was Army reservist Vhon Tanto, who was arrested in Masbate a few days later, and admitted to shooting biker Mark Vincent Garalde.

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Top Gear, the online motoring publication that published Punzalan’s picture and social media account and wrongly identified him as the road rage gunman, apologized profusely and publicly for this colossal error. But the harm had been done.  With death threats hounding him, Punzalan had to report to the National Bureau of Investigation posthaste to clear his name; for security reasons, he had to stay overnight at the NBI quarters with his wife. He still receives false accusations, he says, and has to deal with his Facebook account being hacked and stolen, with felons now extorting money from his relatives.

“I was traumatized. I feared for my life,” he said.

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Punzalan can hardly be blamed for filing on Friday an online libel suit against the editorial board of Top Gear, “to teach them a lesson—not to post without first investigating.”

Online libel is punishable under Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.  The law addresses crimes committed by means of computer systems, and focuses on the preemption, prevention, and prosecution of cybercrimes, among them offenses against confidentiality, integrity, and the availability of computer data and systems.

“Pause before you post” might as well be a lesson for most netizens, who engage in a feeding frenzy every time a reckless post exposes a vulnerable target. Blame the anonymity of the Web for such disregard for facts and privacy, as the absence of identification breeds impunity. Could such a bloodthirsty attitude have been encouraged as well by this administration’s bullying stance, as seen in the vicious behavior of partisan trolls that marked the May elections?

Despite the Cybercrime Law, however, social media still bristles with similar cases of unrestrained bashing and even death threats, sometimes for the most innocuous post. It has happened many times before—that single click of the mouse that ruined reputations, humiliated people and exposed them to bodily harm, and stole fortunes and identities.

Remember that young woman whose comment on President Duterte’s insensitive remark on the gang rape of an Australian missionary earned her rape threats online. Similar malicious attacks were directed at a television personality’s months-old daughter when she spoke up on the rape issue. And recently, one male LRT rider, his tired face an indictment of the ordeal of the daily commute, was savaged online by a woman who took inordinate offense at not being offered a seat. How have we come to this?

Such thuggish online behavior is alarming, given that there are some 44 million internet users in the Philippines as of 2014, per the Philippine National Police’s Anti-Cybercrime Group, citing digital discovery engine Factbrowser. The users, most of them young, spend an average of 18.6 hours per week online (around 2.6 hours per day), according to the PNP report. Is this the mold that’s shaping tomorrow’s leaders and thinkers?

Unfortunately, yes, if one were to go by PNP figures from 2013 to 2015, which indicated that a total of 1,211 cybercrime complaints have been filed. The top five complaints received were online scams (366), online libel (240), online threats (129), identity theft (127), and photo and video voyeurism (89).

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Many do’s and don’ts have been posted on how internet users can protect themselves—from secure privacy settings to ignoring suspicious links and using strong and unique passwords. Just as urgent are ways to protect the public against the same Net users who may inadvertently and unknowingly traffic in misinformation, half-truths and online crimes. As one news site warned, an opinion and a social media account do not a journalist make. For that you need training, to discern and separate chaff from grain.

And, of course, a sense of accountability and responsibility to both subjects and online media users.

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TAGS: cyberbullying, Nestor Punzalan, social media, Top Gear, Vhon Tanto
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