Social media: Opening windows to crime

PETALING JAYA, Malaysia - A snatch thief grabs at a woman's gold chain from a stationary car on a busy road. She escapes his clutches and falls to the ground as the criminal speeds off. No one comes to her aid.

However, right behind the thief's car, a motorist's dashboard-mounted camera has recorded the whole incident.

He later uploads the video to YouTube and shares the footage on Facebook, prompting an outcry against this new mode of robbery and alerting netizens to it.

Capturing crime

Just two years ago, such unpleasant events would not be a common sight on the timelines of most social media users.

Now, more and more bystanders are whipping out their smartphones and other recording devices to capture crime or vigilante arrests happening right before their eyes.

This phenomenon happens because not everyone is physically able to assist the victim or fight against the criminal, says Malaysian Crime Awareness Campaign (MCAC) co-founder Mark Soh.

"Getting evidence is the next best thing, so a person may choose to record an incident instead of providing assistance," said Soh.

With crime taking its place as a familiar element in the social media landscape, psychologist and criminologist Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat worries that people may become desensitised to violence and unlawfulness.

"So much so that when they actually witness crime, they become passive bystanders and don't help to stop it. It's bad that people require more and more gruesome violence to experience outrage," she said.

Some individuals also have less-than-noble motives, such as a desire for 15 minutes of fame by having a video they uploaded go viral.

Some recordings are even misused to frame others.

"Some of the videos and pictures we receive seem to have elements of sabotage, so we don't post them on our page. This is especially true with claims of missing persons, so we always verify the facts," said Soh.

This may include recordings of bullying incidents, which intend to shame the victim.

Recent cases include two female teenagers beating another girl unconscious in what appears to be a violent quarrel over their victim's looks.

Earlier this year, Facebook users were shocked by a three-minute video of a female secondary student being choked with a tie, hit with a book, and humiliated by jeering classmates.

Dr Geshina said such ill-intentioned recordings could signal symptoms of an anti-social personality disorder.

"Such people enjoy causing or witnessing public disorder, and they take pleasure in sharing their experiences with others," she said.

Although such recordings can be used as evidence, uploaders are often unaware of legal repercussions.

"If children are evidenced in the footage, the individual who uploaded it may be charged for many crimes, including neglect, abuse, and being an accomplice," said Dr Geshina.

While graphic images and videos shared on social media can raise awareness and shock people out of complacency, the usual barometers of responsibility, common sense, respect and decorum must always apply.

This can sometimes fall on deaf ears, as some netizens who managed to secure CCTV footage of grisly events have shared it with the world wide web for all to see.

"Posting graphic CCTV images of the AmBank officer who was shot in the face was pure disrespect to her grieving family and in extremely bad taste," said Malaysians Against Rape, Assault and snatcH (Marah) founder Dave Avran.

With MCAC's practice of pixellating gruesome pictures to respect the deceased, Soh agreed that social media etiquette should be practised as it "should never be about the Likes or Shares."

Real risks

However, co-founder of anti-crime project Safer Malaysia, Richard Wee, said it was impossible to police the now-normal act of sharing of such footage or images on social media.

"Safer Malaysia is of the view that people may share criminal footage or images, but they have to learn to be responsible and accountable," said the lawyer.

The problem does not lie in the act of sharing, but the content being shared.

"If the content is sensitive and prejudicial to the police investigation, it may affect the trial," he said of the possible legal risks when the arrested person faces criminal charges.

Misinformation also spreads like wildfire when crime-awareness Facebook page administrators fail to fact-check, said Soh.

As an example, a viral posting recently claimed that an attempted rape occurred in a women's toilet in a popular mall in Kuala Lumpur.

However, the case was disproved when the mall management's CCTV footage revealed no records of such an incident taking place on their premises.

"The admin was lucky that the management did not take legal action against them. In order to be a credible source of information, we advise other page admins to verify incidents before posting them up," said Soh.

Avran also advised social media users to familiarise themselves with the relevant laws when recording said incidents and posting the content on social media channels.

"Always be responsible and verify the authenticity of your material," he said.

On a more sinister note, criminals bent on revenge may also take the trouble to trace the person who uploaded the footage, directly endangering the social media user.

"It is much better to hand over the evidence to the police and let them do their jobs in accordance with our laws," said Dr Geshina.

Problems can arise when witnesses decide to share what they saw "with the world" instead of cooperating with the police despite being requested to come forward.

Helping hands

Although cases that came under his purview have not been directly aided by social media, Kuala Lumpur CID chief Senior Asst Comm Datuk Ku Chin Wah agreed that information shared online has been helpful to police investigations and encouraged netizens to upload footage that would increase crime awareness.

SAC Ku said one case that prompted police action was "CCTV footage of a man beating up his wife in Ipoh that went viral online.

"Increased exposure to such incidents can equip social media users with knowledge on how to handle such situations, and the prevalence of uploads have prompted public advocacy for better crime prevention.

However, he reminded users to exercise caution as there was always another side to the story, and clarified that it was insufficient to only upload said footage on social media.

"It is important for us to know who created the video, as it may serve as admissible evidence. Should the culprit be caught and the case brought to court, then the source of the footage can give evidence in court," he explained.

Dr Geshina agreed with this instance of public duty, but pointed out that many later refuse to go through with court appearances due to time needed and commitment efforts.

She also cautioned against people taking the law into their own hands, with one such case being the accidental death of AirAsia employee Shahrinawati Abu Bakar after two witnesses to her snatch theft attempted to help her.

"There are too many cases where apprehension of criminals led to the arrest of the Good Samaritans themselves. This is largely due to ignorance of laws governing citizen arrests and anger directed to the culprit," she added.

Soh echoed her stand against vigilantism, and urged Malaysians to work hand-in-hand with the authorities "beyond uploading and sharing videos and footage on social media".

"If there is a conviction to help, join community policing, the police reserve or your residential association," he urged.