By Thu Trang
As a nation, we experienced the horrors of vigilantism a few years ago with a spate of violent incidents involving dog thieves or suspected dog thieves. Mobs beat up some people badly, and at least one person was killed.
Fast forward to few weeks ago, and a series of cases have come to light in which local residents have assaulted strangers, mistaking them for people coming to their areas to kidnap children.
The common thread in all cases was that as soon as someone was suspected of being a child kidnapper, residents raised the alarm loudly, caught and beat up the person, and destroyed his vehicle. When the police investigated the case, they found the victims were innocent.
Another common fact is that the fear-mongering happened on social media, especially Facebook.
Many Facebook users targeting more “likes” and views are apparently locked in an unseemly race against each other to post and share sensational information, including rumours of child kidnappers on the loose.
In the latest case last Saturday, two women went to Mai Đình Ward in Hà Nội’s, Sóc Sơn District to sell toothpicks and raise funds for some charitable purpose.
But a local woman believed that the women were out to kidnap children. She screamed for help and a number of local residents beat the women up badly, ignoring their pleas. The women’s faces were swollen and bloodied by the beating.
Of all places, this happened in Hà Nội, the capital.
Last Thursday, Facebook users shared a video clip in which a group of people set fire to an automobile in Lạc Hồng Commune, Thanh Hà District, Hải Dương Province. Locals suspected that the two men driving the car would hypnotise and kidnap. But police found that the two men had gone there to buy animal feed.
As a mother, the thought of a child being kidnapped is frightening, and when Facebook and other social networks mention that such cases are increasing, I understand the need for being vigilant.
Now, with several innocent people beaten up and their properties destroyed because of rumours, I have a different worry. Would I suffer the same fate if I were to ask a child something?
Lê Minh Hương, a friend, shares this worry. “I do not dare to give a lovely child a candy, because I’m afraid that I will be beaten with someone thinking that I’m a kidnapper.”
Phạm Thị Bích Hảo, a member of the Hà Nội Bar Association, said people posting rumours on social networks could be fined anywhere between several hundred thousand đồng (VNĐ100,000 equals US$4.4) to several hundred million đồng (VNĐ100 million equals $4,400), or even face criminal charges, depending on the consequences of their actions.
Since awareness of this law is low, people were not hesitating before putting up false information, she said. The difficulties involved in catching people spreading rumours further embolden the miscreants, she said.
Hào felt that “the police and the Ministry of Information and Communications must join hands to treat all rumours, so that people will no longer believe in them without checking.”
Agreeing with Hảo, Nguyễn Phương Anh, a lecturer in the Sociology Faculty under the Hà Nội University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said that Facebook and other social network users should be careful about information of unclear origins.
“People should join hands with competent agencies to report cases of rumours being deliberately created,” she said.
All these steps are fine, but there is a much larger worry. Apart from the illegality of vigilantism, what does it say of us as a society that we are prone to such unthinking mob fury? However fearful we are, is this mindless violence an appropriate way to respond to it? — VNS