July 20th, 2011

Was the gang rape charge reduced because of a blog post?

Should our online personality be the basis of a character assessment in the courtroom?

I have a confession: my rabbit has a Facebook account and she lied about her age to get it (she’s only 3). And while she spends a fair amount of time talking about world domination, I’m here to tell you that she’s not really like that. She talks a good game but she’s just not as tough as she makes out.

Post Secret

In fairness, neither am I. I try to keep my fears, angers, frustration and sadness under wraps. I try to be my better self. But don’t we all, in some small way, try to project the person we want to be – the person we want to be seen as – rather that the somewhat less polished truth? Don’t we Photoshop our personalities?

The law doesn’t seem to think so.

Increasingly, information pulled from social networks is being used as evidence in court cases. Fair enough – it can often provide useful information in disputes and criminal investigations. But how far should it go?

It is one thing to use an update or photo as evidence of tangible facts, such as:

  • Where you were
  • Who you were with
  • What you were doing

But is it a reliable indicator of your frame of mind?

Lawyer Chia Boon Teck used information from a blog to fight a woman’s claim of molestation against his client. She claimed the act occurred during a job interview and that she left the office quietly, reporting the matter only later. On her blog, she portrayed herself as a feisty woman and also wrote about how she had fought with a pimp in Geylang.

Mr Chia used this information to challenge why she had not raised any alarm or created a scene in the office there and then, considering her feisty character. ‘It is all too easy for a woman to act demure in court. Such social media evidence can at least give judges a different perspective of the witness,’ said Mr Chia, whose client was fined $5,000 on the molestation charge. – Straits Times, July 16, 2011

Quite frankly, this woman sounds a bit like my rabbit. Tall talk but maybe not as tough as she makes out.

Is it possible that people talk a bunch of bull on their blogs and status updates? That they misrepresent their bravery? That they are feisty with friends but less assertive at work?

Certainly the interpretation is debatable. But how about this case?

In Singapore, when lawyer Adrian Wee’s client was accused of rape, he dug deep – online. The plaintiff had claimed to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but entries on her blog painted a different story. His client’s charge was subsequently reduced from rape to aggravated outrage of modesty – cutting the possible sentence of 20 years to half the length, at most. – ibid

Adrian Wee is the same lawyer who defended Rishi Mohan, one of the 5 men charged in the 5-on-1 gang rape case widely reported in 2010. In that case, Rishi was ultimately charged with outrage of modesty.

Is it possible a 17-year-old suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder would lie about her state of mind? Could she even try to lie to herself about what she went through? Should a blog post by the victim of a heinous crime be taken at face value? Is it even relevant if the facts of the case are already established?

These are troubling precedents. Social media is a new phenomenon. Do we really know enough about online psychology and internet culture to use the digital persona to divine someone’s frame of mind?

One thing is for sure: my bunny better stop talking crap. If anyone ever touches her, nobody will believe the “poor and defenceless creature” story, even if she does only weigh 2kg.

 

The author wrote our original report on the 2010 gang rape case. She also owns a rabbit.

3 Comments ...

  1. Tania

    There is not enough knowledge out there about net psychology for judges or anyone to be coming to conclusions about anything else besides hard facts of where, when or who, based on blog entries.

    Blog entries involving feelings, accounts and opinions are large expanses of gray and can be used like statistics… i.e. to back up any conclusion one wishes to come to. One person says the blog of the 17-year-old rape survivor points to the fact that she is fine. Another can say that she is trying to find a way to communicate the incident to loved ones without them getting alarmed. Another can say it is catharsis. Another can say she is trying to compensate for the fact that she is actually having a breakdown and trying to convince herself otherwise.

    Symptoms of PTSD are so abundant and varied – seriously, how can a judge/lawyer make these sorts of judgements!

    #2690
  2. s.e. smith has a great article at FWD/Forward: The Perils of Social Media: How Insurance Companies Use Twitter, Facebook, and the Rest of the Internet to Deny Benefits. As a rape survivor with PTSD, you can imagine my indignation at this report. There is nothing more ridiculous in being forced into a stereotyped performance of survivorship and disability, unless it is the condescending pity that erases my voice.

    #2691