How far should we go in using social media to censure boorish behaviour?

Kelly Yang wonders if exposing someone's boorish behaviour on social media is acceptable, even necessary. Or is that bullying?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 September, 2014, 11:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 2:06pm

Last week, four young Western women travelling on a bus pulled the "I'm a lawyer" card on me. I was heading home from the public pool, with my mum. The bus was packed - standing room only. The four women sat in one row, chatting happily. I asked them gently if they would mind giving up a seat for my mum, who is in her 60s, but they did not even bother answering.

As more elderly people crowded onto the bus, I felt the fury build up inside me. The elderly held onto the handles. Every time the bus took a sharp turn, they braced themselves, hanging on for dear life. Meanwhile, the women continued to hold court in their seats. My glares did nothing to interrupt their conversation.

Just when I thought the situation was hopeless, I remembered that this is 2014, not 2004, and I whipped out my phone and snapped a photo of them just as the bus pulled to a halt.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing? Did you just take a photo of us?" one of the women demanded. "Yup," I admitted. "And I'm uploading it to Twitter."

Her jaw dropped. I proceeded to point to all the elderly people around us. Many were getting off, but they shot me looks of thanks as they disembarked.

I turned back to the young women. "I'll have you know that I'm a lawyer," one of them said. "Actually, we're all lawyers!" They uttered the word "lawyer" like it had magical powers. "You can't post that photo of us. That's an invasion of our privacy! You've got to delete it," one said. "We'll sue you if you post it!"

Just at that moment, the bus arrived at my stop and I got away from the screaming women. That afternoon, I started to wonder: if I put the photo up on Twitter or Facebook, is it really an invasion of privacy?

A quick Google search revealed that it is permissible in Hong Kong to take photographs of an individual in a public place, such as a street. But is a bus a public place? And should I have warned them before taking the photo?

More questions popped up as the week went on. Several times, my fingers lingered over my phone as I contemplated what would happen if I posted it - most likely, nothing. Sadly, I'm no Kim Kardashian. I don't have that many followers on Twitter. But, in our technological age, all it takes is one follower. What if, after a few retweets, someone identifies the women and they start getting harassed online. Would it be cyberbullying? By exposing their poor manners on social media, would I be crossing the line?

On the other hand, if I don't publish it, if I yield to their threat of a lawsuit, what does that make me? A coward who caves in to bullying? If, ultimately, I can't even use social media to expose wrongdoing, then what's the point of it?

It's been a week since the incident and I still haven't made my decision. What would you do? I welcome your advice. Right now, the photo sits on my phone, one tap away from being posted and one swipe away from being deleted.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.