Thursday 19 July 2012

Is fear of crime going viral through social media?

It was a series of compelling photographs - of an elderly man, with blood everywhere - a clear warning of a violent crime having taken place.

NONEWithin the next 24 hours, photographs of the blood-splattered man - victim of a mugging in the car park of the 1Utama shopping mall - were seen by at least 4,000 people.

News reports the following day identified the man as a 69-year-old trader who only wanted to be known as Lim.

Earlier this month, another warning of a violent crime made its rounds on the online social networks.

Though not accompanied with gory pictures this time, the Facebook note tells an equally harrowing tale, attributed to a Singapore-based news channel, of a 'stab and rob' syndicate and its victims.

This Facebook note is, to this day, circulating within cyberspace and through mobile networks via messaging applications such as Whatsapp.

Only this time there is a problem - both the Singapore news channel and police have denied the existence of the news report, saying that nothing about the posting is true.

NONEAre social media users, in their earnest intention to prevent crime, spreading fear and paranoia?

Some 30 hours after fighting off an attempted kidnapping at a shopping mall car park in Damansara, Selangor, Chin Xin-Ci (right) wrote about her experience on Facebook.

"It was partly cathartic for myself. I was still in shock when I wrote it. I needed to get everything off my chest so I won't have to explain to my friends and family over and over again," she said.

Her Facebook note - a detailed and chilling account of how she escaped being kidnapped at knife point - has been shared by more than 30,000 people and counting.

Connecting victims

"Rumours of crime are inevitable. If it's not (on social networking sites), it's by SMS, email or word of mouth. But it's good that people are coming out to share.

"You have to take the good with the bad. When we see a photograph, that person becomes a real person, you feel connected, (and there is) a sense of urgency," said Chin who is now working with an NGO to promote safer car parks.

NONEIt was a sense of connectedness that led to the online campaign Be Safe Stay Alert, which shares personal accounts of victims and information on crime prevention.

The webmaster, a UK-based Malaysian who does not want her identity disclosed for fear of reprisal, was robbed on a highway when she returned home a few months after her husband encountered a similar experience.

Soon after the incident, a woman living in her neighbourhood in the Klang Valley contacted her to say that she was also similarly robbed.

"We were sitting ducks in traffic jams. I am also disappointed that nobody came to offer me any help.

"If I had known things were so bad, I, too, would have been more careful and not leave anything on my car seat," the webmaster said.

Launched three weeks ago, the campaign has reached about 40,000 people, with about 6,500 actively "listening".

The first emails she received were on how crime affected her friends and those with standing in society, and she believes her diligence in vetting the information is attracting credible input.

"When I started the blog and the Facebook account, I reached out to reliable people, especially senior women, to start the conversation on crime, and I monitor who is listening.

"I have worked as a marketer before and I can discern the true tales of horror and those that have been concocted," she said.

Promoting paranoia and vigilante justice?

According to psychologist and criminologist Geshina Ayu Mat Saat, sharing experiences online is akin to group therapy, a method commonly used to help those suffering from trauma.

"They'll feel they are not alone and can go on with their lives," said Geshina, a lecturer with Universiti Sains Malaysia.

But social media may inadvertently raise the levels of fear among those people who have not fallen victim to crime and who have read about these experiences, especially if they already feel vulnerable to crime.

NONEGeshina (right) said the cases that pique the people's interest are the ones that are particularly severe, especially in terms of physical injuries suffered, and this can cause much anxiety.

"At the level it is now, I personally feel it is too much," she said, citing also the hoaxes that are being circulated as a result of the growing interest in crime.

Such exposure can also cause hypersensitivity, leading to vigilante justice.

"People could make false accusations against innocent people or beat half to death people they believe have committed crime because they think, 'Here, we have a criminal and the police are not doing anything'," Geshina said.

"I know of a case where a woman cried for help and the thief was seen running away in one direction. People who gave chase saw a drug addict walking and assumed he was the thief and beat him up, causing him to land in hospital."

Freeze, fight or flight

But genuine information on the social media, said Geshina, could help people prepare themselves for potential threats of crime.

When faced with an attack, she said, an individual either "fights, flees or freezes".

"If they freeze, sharing stories of this can give an insight as to how not to freeze if it happens to you.

"In terms of mitigating physical harm, these stories can help people learn when to fight and when to take flight," she said.

police crime roadblockPolice and the authorities should also learn to use the social media as a means to allay fears of crime, said her colleague P Sundramoorthy.

While the police have recently been quick to debunk hoaxes through their Facebook and Twitter feeds, Sundramoorthy said the official police website has been poorly used to help the people understand issues of crime.

"People won't understand if you just put the statistics of the first six months, without showing the long-term trend. Statistics can be quite scary on their own," he said.

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