Sunday February 6, 2011
Ugly side of Net vigilantes
By RASHVINJEET S. BEDI and HARIATI AZIZAN
The YouTube video of a poodle being abused that was widely circulated recently caused a lot of fury on the Internet, not just because of the cruelty but also for the abuse of information it created.
JONE Fun opened his Facebook message inbox one morning and found it inundated with hundreds of messages. Almost all were insulting in nature. They called him an idiot, brainless and other words that cannot possibly be mentioned here.
His purported crime – abusing a Toy Poodle. This was the infamous video that was widely circulated on the Internet in recent weeks.
“I was shocked and wondered what was happening. I thought some people were just trying to create chaos,” he says.
Fun, 29, claims he was actively gathering information about the case but then someone created a fake account of the alleged abuser and put his picture on the profile.
Without checking the facts, people started bombarding him with unsavoury comments although he looks nothing like the abuser, Fun says.
“When people are mad with anger, they might be irrational.”
On the bright side, Fun has become a mini-celebrity with people creating groups to support his innocence. The groups called “Jone Fun – Man or Legend” and “Justice for Jone” were created in an attempt to gather 9,000 signatures in his support.
And support has come from all over the world – Kuwait and America among others, according to Fun. Even a Taiwanese model has befriended him, he adds.
But the whole episode has left him bemused.
“I don’t know if I should be happy or angry. At least my network has been widened,” remarks the consultant in audio-visual systems.
He is no longer receiving any abusive messages but he notes wryly that not even one person has apologised for abusing him earlier.
As an observer of the case from the start, he says, he has seen how the story has been twisted so many times.
Follow the blogs and social networking sites and all you see is a mountain of unverified information about it. Information about the suspects, from the make, colour and registration number of their car to their addresses and mobile phone numbers, are all there.
University student Pauli Cash, 24, who is also a part-time technology consultant, believes there is a veracity to the posting of information on an official page that allows for people to assume it is real, even if the official page is merely a scam.
“People get really worked up over animal abuse, and rightly so, but they forget how hard it is to figure out who did it when all they have is a picture or video to go by,” says Cash.
“Internet addiction is rampant and will cause many to get hurt in the coming years,” he adds.
Commenting on the toy poodle abuse video, an appalled Facebook member who only wants to be known as Hamidah points out the presence of numerous clips of animals and their funny antics on the Internet. “Maybe it is time we think of other tricks if we want to shoot funny or cute videos of our pets. Can they find a better idea if they want their pet to do a trick? This is definitely not okay. Are we advocating that it is okay to torture animals? Why in the first place did he need to torture the poor dog?” she rants.
Another Facebook user, Siew, says she was too frightened to watch the video but strongly believes that it is wrong to force animals to do funny tricks.
“Pets and animals are not here for our amusement. They may amuse us with their antics, but we should not be forcing them to do what we think is amusing.”
However, Siew, a former journalist, concedes that “punish and reward” is an established practice when it comes to animal training.
“Unfortunately, that has been the established norm. Circuses where such animal acts are found use that method and are painted as ‘good fun’, ‘family-oriented’ entertainment. Even zoos encourage such acts. But this is just one out of the many changes people have made to the natural world to meet our ‘needs’, and we’ve become so adept at it to the point that it is seen as a ‘right’, so much so that we rarely appreciate nature as it is, and we always think it needs to be changed – like how some residents turned the entrance to the Bukit Gasing forest reserve into an urban garden.”
Interestingly, there have been cases of animal abuse which were solved by Internet users, and this could explain why the person who claimed to have found the USB containing the video clip of the poodle being abused uploaded it on YouTube.
In 2009, users in the United States were outraged when they saw a video of a teenage boy abusing a cat named Dusty. They pieced together information using social networking sites and clues from the video to identify the boy from Oklahoma.
The local authorities were alerted and two boys were arrested. The cat was still alive and was treated by a vet.
Then there is the now famous case of 45-year-old Mary Bale of Coventry, England. A video from a security camera uploaded on YouTube showed an older woman petting a grey cat and then tossing it into a garbage can before closing the lid.
The cat was found 15 hours later, still alive. Internet users jumped on the case and managed to find Bale’s employer, address, and social networking profiles, and harassed her until she went into hiding.
Case of mistaken identity
In the poodle case, however, it has just been one mistaken identity after another.
Businessman Johnson Kang claims he received more than 130 calls with some threats to kill him for allegedly abusing the dog. The calls started coming in after someone created a Twitter account with his phone number under the name of an individual believed to be the one who had abused the poodle called Sushi.
Another businessman, Tan Leong Seng, the owner of a restaurant in Melaka Raya, saw his business experience a sudden increase as curious people thronged his shop to catch a glimpse of him. The address of his Yong Peng fishball shop had been posted on Facebook as that of the poodle abuser.
A man by the name of Daniel was even mentioned by a Taiwanese news channel as the person in the video. He later made a police report to clear his name. In one of his Facebook posts, he pleaded with people to leave him alone, saying that he did not have a tattoo on his left arm, which the abuser had. He, however, concedes that he has an uncanny resemblance to the abuser’s.
Other phone numbers posted on Facebook turned out to be hoaxes as well.
When one of these numbers was called, the man who picked up the phone identified himself as Ah Heng. He says he was bombarded by about 30 calls a few days ago.
“I don’t know what is going on and why I suddenly got so many calls,” says the man who also claims to be unaware of the poodle abuse case.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) office manager M. Shelvy says all the information or leads on the Internet turned out to be false after checking them.
“I don’t know why people are doing this,” she says, adding that the public should leave it to the police and Department of Veterinary Services (DVS) to investigate.
A Facebook user who goes by the name of Lin Ling comments that people should not cause unnecessary hurt and distress by simply naming anyone who they thought was a suspect.
“I understand that people want justice to be done. I want it too. But they have to capture the real culprit, not an innocent party,” she says.
She adds that she tried explaining this idea in the group but her comments were deleted by the administrators.
Podcast producer John Lim believes that people are too ready to believe what they read on the Internet and don’t check the facts. This is further complicated by social media tools such as Twitter that offer the opportunity to respond spontaneously, he points out.
“In an emotional topic like animal abuse, people are going to respond. That might be the consequence of the social media being easily usable,” he says.
Only a few days ago, the police issued a statement denying a message about a child kidnapping that had spread like wildfire through SMS and social networking sites.
The message urged those who saw a white MyVi bearing a certain number plate to call a Mr Rashid at a given number. The person in the car had allegedly driven away with a baby in the Puchong area.
“You can’t blame social media or technology. It’s just a tool. It’s the responsibility of the users to check the authenticity of the information,” says Lim.
Medium of exposure
On the other hand, he says, social media has helped fuel the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions through the dissemination of information.
Siew, however, believes that in the poodle abuse video case, broadcasting the video on the Internet was not the right thing to do. She argues that while any wrongdoing needs to be exposed, especially those that are shown to have caused direct harm such as in the poodle abuse case, what should have been done was to inform the relevant authorities.
“The person taking the video would know the location of the crime and could have informed the authorities without doing this street vigilantism. If they feared reprisals, this is where protection of sources come in, and a Whistleblower Protection Act can help.”
Siew highlights another principle at stake here.
“Media ethics require that persons suspected of a crime are not named until they are charged. The same principle works here even if the person may not be a journalist or know better, because on the Internet, any user is a publisher. We protest about state control of the Internet and argue for self-regulation, yet this is how we do it,” she notes.
David Lian, from the APAC Social Media Practice Lead, Text 100, believes reactions will vary from person to person depending on their upbringing and disposition.
He says that while some people take information at face value, there are those who are cynical about everything they read on the Internet.
In the poodle abuse case, he says animal lovers might believe anything even though its hearsay information.
“If you have a vested interest, you would be naturally outraged,” he says, adding that he also wonders if anything can be done about those spreading false information.
“There is a human tendency to believe in rumours regardless of the medium,” he says.
Victims of abuse can take action