In Defense of Liberty: A Digital Appellate Court of Netizens
Forensic science is no longer a mystery to the general public. It has technical components that require expert knowledge. However, countless hours of TV drama like CSI have been watched not just by the public but by the police, too. They believe, rightly or not, that their knowledge is equal to the expert investigators who process evidence in a criminal case.
Crime scene preservation is now widely understood even by school children. Don’t touch!
DNA processing information, the techniques, timing, history, limitations are a Google step away.
Our information about the nuts and bolts of crime investigation is available to anyone with a computer and Internet link. This has disrupted the information/knowledge monopoly previous enjoyed by law enforcement authorities. That information and knowledge is ubiquitous. If you have an Internet connection, you don’t need to rely on what someone in authority claims is the ‘truth’. You have a world of authorities to choose from, thousand of other voices. Authorities fear that with such power you’ll discover their local opinion is out of synchronicity with the generally accepted opinion of experts.
Social media has provided an outlet for experts, pundits, activists, and along with a cynical, suspicious public who gather on Facebook and Twitter to exchange views, opinions, and criticism.
Once upon a time a high profile criminal case like the killing of two tourists in Thailand might attract fleeting international attention but the attention faded quickly as old media focused on a new domestic crime. For the old media, the rule of thumb was murder close to home attracted more attention from its audience than one that happened in a foreign country.
The terrain of the new digital world is beginning to emerge and the authorities are only beginning to react with horror that their place inside this new social media driven world operates along lines that are outside of their experience.
The pre-1990 generation or those raised and educated in a pre-digital world, and that includes most of us, had a different social construct of the police, crown prosecutors, and courts. Members of law enforcement rarely suffered sustained public assaults on their authority, competency or trustworthiness. As the Thai police force are discovering, they no longer control the information, they no longer are ceded absolute control of the case, and they no longer are given the benefit of the doubt.
In the case of Thailand, we have up to date statistics that demonstrate the how widely spread social media has become in Thailand. The Thai social media exceptional growth has been noticed inside the tech world. Worldwide, Thai Facebook population ranks No. 9, and comes in No. 17 in the Twitter rankings according to latest 2014 stats: Note as well that 42% of Thais or 28 million have Facebook accounts, representing a 53% growth and 4.5 million Thais with Twitter accounts for a 350% growth rate).
The Koh Tao murders illustrate a long free fall from the august heights of authority and there is no indication of where the bottom will be once the authorities land. Members of the wider public read accounts in newspapers or watched the nightly TV news, which filtered information to them about crimes, suspects, pleas, verdicts and sentences. It is a process that worked like clockwork like acts in Shakespeare’s most popular drama.
The Internet and Social Media has overturned the old order. The old scripts no longer work. Thais and foreigners are going to a Facebook page called CSI LA for latest updates and analysis of the Koh Tao murders.
The lead actors, supporting cast, producers and directors assemble to speak at news conference, to talk to reporters, and to explain how they are about to arrest the killers. Welcome to the high-tech world where things are done a little differently. In an international, high profile Thai criminal case, the fault lines between how the old crime story dramas played out and how a contemporary crime story does, in contrast, falls into incoherence.
The age when police officers’ uniform or crown prosecutors’ or judges’ robes were symbols of authority that shielded them from the outside is rapidly fading from sight The automatic shield of authority is gone. But the fight isn’t over. No better example of the revolutionary role in this process is found than in the Koh Tao double-murders of two young Britons, Hannah Witheridge, 23, and David Miller, 24 who were on holiday. Others have set out the details of the crime scene on theSairee Beach, Koh Tao, where the battered bodies of the two were discovered. (Andrew Drummond summaries the twists and turns in the case here.)
Allegations of local mafia involvement, bribery, torture, forced confessions, sexism, racism, mishandled evidence, false leads and misleading statements have left a digital vapor stream that the police have desperately tried to erase.
In the pre-digital world, the restraint against abuse of authority arose from a constitution, written or unwritten, and protection against such violations against a citizen’s liberty had a legal foundation. In the post-digital world where constitutional protections have been eroded almost everywhere, what is emerging is a digital citizen code of protection that transcends the old geo-political borders. What unites most officials is an abhorrence of being made to look foolish, corrupt, incompetent, psychopathic, cruel or arbitrary. Of course there are places where militants will violate all such social norms, kill as many people as necessary, spread terror all in the name of a belief and to secure a complete victory. Thailand isn’t one of those places. But it is a culture where face plays a significant role. Admitting a mistake or error is rare.
When someone is caught in a lie, a cover-up, or a misdeed the usual retort is there was a misunderstanding. It is the culturally graceful way of allowing someone who has been cornered to save face. The social media has backed the police into a corner. Internet petitions have urged the case against two young Burmese to be reconsidered or dropped. This petition on change.org has over 45,000 signatures. Here’s an example of how the word of the petition is spread online. Human rights activists have called for an independent investigation. News articles and editorials (Thai as well as Burmese) have raised doubts as whether the two young Burmese, Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, each man 21 years old, arrested in the case confessed of their own freewill or whether the bruises on their bodies is consistent with their story that they were tortured during the interrogation process. But young men have recanted their confessions saying they’d been tortured and beaten. Link.
Then disturbingly, on a social media, it has been suggested the police have expressed concern the Burmese suspects might be a suicide risk. You can let your own minds sort through the range of possibilities inherent in such an announcement. Meanwhile, the police are sticking to their story: that they have evidence that the two Burmese men committed the murders.
The two Burmese suspects have no constitutional rights or protection. They suffer from the stigma of their ethnicity and nationality, which has been traditionally promoted by the Thai education system and media. They have no money, power, or friends. In the pre-digital age they would have been doomed. The names of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun would soon have been forgotten.
But the murder case brought against them shows how rapidly social media have given birth to Netizens who will challenge the authority and exclusivity of a criminal charges perceived as biased and unfair. The fairness and adequacy of the actors within the Thai justice system has attracted the interest of a massive online international audience.
Check out the FB posts, some in Thai, some in English: https://th-th.facebook.com/CSILA90210
Look at this post, showing number of people reached by this FB page (3.5 million in Thailand, and tens of thousands each in many other countries)
A survey done at this FB page shows over 90% of readers don’t believe the thai police.
And the verdict of that audience is not one that is to the liking of the police or others in authorities. That verdict is the case against them is tainted and it would be a gross travesty of justice to continue the case.
If the intention of the police was to clear a high profile case by prosecuting the two Burmese men to impress an international audience from whom millions of tourists are drawn annually, they have failed. The handling of the case, rather giving foreigners comfort of their safety on holiday in Thailand, they have scripted a dark tragedy.
Whatever the fate of Zaw Lin and Win Zaw Htun, we are witnessing the birth of a new appellate process. It doesn’t have a name yet. Nor is the process or the personnel static. The digital guardians, with social justice and fairness as their brief, have organized themselves on social media platforms, and their judgment is overwhelmingly negative in the handling of the investigation. The concerns expressed online are that the case against the Burmese suspects is riddled with uncertainty, flaws, and suspicions and it is unsafe to continue. If the digital community’s verdict is ignored, no one can predict if these same guardians of liberty will find digital ways to spread collective action to impose sanctions.
Addendum: The Koh Toa murder case against the two Burmese continues to move, or perhaps lurch, from pothole to pothole on the bumpy road to justice. The latest development just in from Surat Thani’s prosecutors who have concluded the 850 page police report flawed and too long, and have sent it back to the police. So far no news on whether the reward promised to the police for ‘solving’ the case has been withdrawn.