by Larry Smith
Local newspapers recently published a letter from a retired senior cop calling for the prosecution of those who spread misinformation on social media "which appears to result in public alarm and panic”.
The top two examples given were the rumour of an island-wide fuel shortage and the report that police were not showing up for duty after the hurricane. The writer suggested prosecution under Section 492 of the Penal Code:
"Whoever, with intent to cause public alarm or disturbance, publishes or attempts to cause the publication of any news or telegram which he knows or believes to be false, is guilty of a misdemeanour.”
In our view, this should not be tolerated because the drawbacks far outweigh any benefits. The best way to deal with misinformation is to avoid a vacuum and provide full and credible information as fast as possible. Our political and business leaders very often do not do this until they are cornered. And sometimes not even then.
The original scare about fuel shortages came when someone noticed that the docks at Clifton were no longer there and extrapolated a lengthy power island-wide outage. Others noticed that multiple gas stations were closed. Lots of people passed this information on urgently as if it were fact, but there was nothing sinister about it.
There were similar rumours after Hurricane Joaquin about deaths on Long Island. But how do you determine if a rumour which could potentially cause alarm was spread maliciously? And should we waste court time and resources to pursue such matters?
Remember that Maria Daxon, an ex-police officer, now a lawyer, was recently arrested under the criminal libel laws for criticising the Police Commissioner on social media, and held initially without bail.
Since we have so many conflicts of interest in this town - personal, political, financial and otherwise - combined with general political immaturity polished up by high-powered spin doctors, it would be unlikely that policing social media will be an impartial exercise for the benefit of public order.