SINGAPORE: Members of the public who film videos that might require the attention of the police should consider taking them straight to the authorities instead of uploading them onto social media, observers have told Channel NewsAsia.
Their comments come after a video of a couple being rude to an elderly man in a Toa Payoh hawker centre went viral.
Passing the videos to the police would contain the rise of online vigilantism that goes beyond seeking appropriate punishment for perceived wrongdoers, said Associate Professor Paulin Straughan from the sociology department at the National University of Singapore. When a video is put up, it is shared and the actions of those involved are judged by a “popular jury,” she said.
In the 30-second video, a couple is seen arguing with an elderly man who asks to share a table with them. The man is seen shoving the older man.
The incident happened on Apr 21 at Toa Payoh Lorong 8 Market and Hawker Centre. It was recorded and uploaded online, drawing over three million views and at least 6,000 comments from netizens, many of whom angrily called for severe action to be taken against the couple.
The police arrested the couple - a 46-year-old man and 39-year-old woman - for alleged public nuisance four days later. In the process of trying to find the couple, netizens incorrectly identified them. The woman wrongly named online wrote on her Facebook page that it was an “emotional period and scary moment”.
“In some cases, they identify those in the video wrongly, and that can cause pain and suffering,” said Assoc Prof Straughan, adding that even when they are identified correctly, the punishment must be appropriate.
Criminal lawyer Adrian Wee said that while videos can help the police in investigations, the sharing of such material may be counterproductive. He suggested online vigilantism can put pressure on the police to commit additional resources to investigate such incidents.
Lawyers that Channel NewsAsia spoke to also pointed out that the public nuisance law is typically used when members of the public are disorderly while drunk.
However, uploading and sharing such videos is a natural instinct and a function of social media that cannot be stopped, said criminal lawyer Josephus Tan. It also raises the general consciousness on graciousness, he said.
Previously, when there was no video or photographic evidence, there were more situations where it was one person’s word against someone else’s and it was harder to determine the truth.
He acknowledged, though, that the aim should not be to generate a “witch-hunt”.
REPORTING INCIDENTS TO THE POLICE
Making a police report is the responsible thing to do and probably more helpful than sharing incidents on social media, said William Wan, general-secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement.
Developing this point, Professor Straughan suggested that the police should give an assurance that a video that goes to them directly will receive the same amount of attention as a viral video, and justice will still be served.
In response to queries from Channel NewsAsia on whether social media pressure influences decisions made by the police, a spokesman said that the facts of each case will be assessed when a police report is made. If a criminal offence is disclosed, appropriate action would be taken against the offenders, he added.
NO NEED FOR VIGILANTISM
Member of Parliament Louis Ng, who also sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Home Affairs and Law, lauded members of public for caring and taking the effort to “right a wrong”, but said that they should draw the line at vigilantism.
Mr Wan of the Singapore Kindness Movement agreed that there is a risk of the public becoming overzealous: “In Singapore, where I'd like to think that most will agree that we have a very good police force, there is really no need for vigilantes. There is no excuse for taking the law into our own hands.
“What was negative here was the online lynching, firstly in a case of mistaken identity. And even now, with the continued baying for blood of the couple,” he said.
STEPPING IN INSTEAD OF RECORDING
Assoc Prof Straughan said that instead of filming in such situations, members of the public should also consider stepping in to help. She pointed out that in the Toa Payoh incident, a man was seen trying to resolve the situation. She said that if members of the public are worried for their safety, they could document the incident, but there is no need to upload the incident online.
Mr Ng echoed her views. He said it worries him that instead of helping, people are content to see what is happening. He referred to an incident where a dog was abused, and passers-by watched and filmed it without stepping in to stop what was happening.
“It will help if there are more people wanting to intervene lawfully rather than just one solo person trying to defuse a situation. If there is violence, calling the security if there is any, or police, is also a way to get involved,” Mr Wan said.