Justice in the age of social media

N.B. – This was published in The Lobbyist (December 21) where I write a column (Subtext).

What do acquitted murderer Hubert Webb and witness Jessica Alfaro have in common? If you believe in everything that’s tweeted, they want to team up for The Amazing Race!

Alfaro is said to have an advantage in this reality show because she is used to being on the run. Webb, on the other hand, has a lot of “catching up” to do after spending 15 years and four months in prison from 1995 to 2010.

Obviously the Twitter accounts @iamhubertwebb and @jessica_alfaro are fake, both of them created last December 14 by one person or several people who have some time to kill. Incidentally, December 14 marked the Supreme Court’s acquittal of Webb and his five companions for the killings of Estrellita, Carmela and Jennifer Vizconde on June 30, 1991.

Has justice been served at last? For Lauro Vizconde who still mourns for the brutal death of his wife and children, it is back to square one, so to speak, as the almost two-decade old Vizconde massacre remains unsolved. For the Webb family and that of his co-accused, it will be a merry Christmas as their respective families spend the holidays for the first time outside prison in more than 15 years.

I can more or less understand that the fake Twitter accounts of Webb and Alfaro are being maintained in the spirit of fun. At this point, I can only hope that these do not end up trivializing the very serious issue of a flawed justice system in the country.

In the age of Twitter and other social media, the truth is easily misinterpreted and twisted as lies and half-truths are tweeted or posted many times over. In the context of humor, jokes are said to be half-meant, and it is possible for online audiences to think that there is some truth to whatever is being laughed at. Webb’s ignorance of the latest technological developments may be harmless, but jokes about Alfaro’s continuing drug dependence could create a different mindset about her character, most especially if and when she defends herself for allegedly pretending to be a witness when in fact she was an agent of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in the 1990s.

The majority of the Supreme Court justices who acquitted Webb et al. can always claim that they were not swayed by public opinion and that, in coming up with the decision, they only analyzed the given facts. However, social media are now so pervasive that even the non-Internet savvy individuals get to know the nature of discussions there like trending topics. Broadcast stations have their Facebook and Twitter accounts for the entire institution and specific programs. Even their respective journalists, entertainment personalities and other media workers maintain accounts in other social media which they promote every now and then. Some news programs have actually integrated feedback from Facebook and Twitter, making it possible to immediately get comments from news segments just seconds after their airing.

It cannot be denied therefore that despite the limited reach of the Internet in the Philippines, social media can play a pivotal role in the shaping of public opinion as other forms of mass media periodically publish or air what’s happening in cyberspace. As Internet-savvy people have the freedom to create Twitter and other accounts in social media and post information there, it is hoped that responsibility is exercised so that the quest for justice is not lost in the humor, and that the flawed justice system does not get trivialized in the stream of posts and replies in social media.

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