SINCE last week, two cities in Cebu have had to respond to social media reports about alleged threats to their communities’ safety.
The first involved a teenager’s Facebook post about an Abu Sayyaf team that, she claimed, surrounded a bus in Carcar City until a police team rescued the passengers. The second focused on a supposed kidnapping in Barangay Tabok, Mandaue City. Authorities declared both posts as hoaxes, but by then, these had circulated widely on the social networking site.
We’d like to think these posts were motivated by impulses different from those that provoke bomb jokes. We think their sources genuinely meant to help keep their families and cities safe, and were not just out to call attention to themselves.
But because they failed to verify before posting, both sources will have consequences to face. The first teenager has apologized for that Abu Sayyaf yarn. The second will be summoned soon by the mayor of Mandaue City.
These cases show a challenge that local officials and law enforcers now grapple with, a difficult balancing of the need to stay vigilant, while at the same time guarding people’s peace of mind. It’s true the authorities must tamp down on fake reports—and so, must weigh the option to file cases—while at the same time encourage people to keep sharing information.
What the authorities can’t afford to do is ignore social media conversations. In some countries, social networks have become part of the field that state agencies regularly scan, in order to catch emerging threats. In Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, public safety and intelligence agencies use social media to keep an eye on constituents that are in danger of being radicalized.
Properly informed, social media users can give public safety agencies and rescue workers important, life-saving information. These can include the locations of people in need of help during fires, floods and other emergencies. As we know from our experience after the October 2013 earthquake and typhoon Yolanda the month after, social media are also valuable in organizing relief efforts, volunteers, and moral support.
It would be a good idea for law enforcers and other local officials to reach out to their communities online, continue to educate them about the need to verify, and help set norms so that these new, quick connections make our public spaces, whether online or off, much safer.
Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on November 16, 2016.
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