Internet CSI may nab the wrong guy

WRONGFULLY ACCUSED: A CCTV video shows a Hyundai Eon driver shooting a cyclist. After Top Gear Philippines mistakenly identified Mr Punzalan as the gunman, the Internet lynch mob sent him death threats, forcing him to surrender himself to the police. He was later absolved of the crime.


    Aug 02, 2016

    Internet CSI may nab the wrong guy

    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 closed-circuit television footage from P. Casal Street in Quiapo, Manila, last Tuesday went viral.

    A red Eon nearly hit Mark Vincent Garalde, an e-games attendant on his bicycle.

    After an unimpressive fistfight, the driver took out a pistol and shot Mr Garalde, and kept shooting after the latter 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 the bystanders belatedly register that they just witnessed a murder.

    Emotional citizens combed the video for clues. The case appeared solved when Top Gear Philippines posted a photo of Mr Punzalan's Eon and traced the conduction sticker. Mr 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.

    Mr 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.

    Mr Punzalan's case is mild, though, compared with the confusion after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 16, 2013. Internet detectives combed through photos, analysing 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 far from 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 apologised profusely to his 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?

    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?

    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 people 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 Mr 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 to be 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 Mr 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 spreads a rumour.

    Perhaps more broadly, we need to accept how easily misinformation spreads today. Perhaps we should have learnt our lesson after an election where half-truths and bizarre memes flew thick and fast.

    Some social-media accounts rival mainstream-media networks in reach, but with none of the accountability or training.

    As the Reddit detectives learnt, 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 subsidise this key public good called truth or outsource the job to amateurs, at the risk of the Punzalans of the world.