Message mischief

Beryl Williams in the car she drove on the day of the incident.

Grassy Park Community Policing Forum (CPF) has warned people not to share dodgy information on social media.

This comes after a Lotus River community worker’s life was turned upside down when false information about her was posted on WhatsApp and Facebook.

Two weeks ago, Beryl Williams, a Nita Road Neighbourhood Watch member was doing her daily patrols and helping Perivale Primary pupils cross the very busy De Wet Road when a woman screamed to the children to run because Ms Williams steals children.

Ms Williams tried to tell the woman that she was from the neighbourhood watch.

“The children, who knew me, started to run because they obviously didn’t know what to believe,” she said.
A very confused Ms Williams didn’t know what was going on, and she didn’t pay too much attention to the woman’s allegation, until the next day when she saw a message in the neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group identifying her as a kidnapper. Suddenly she realised why the woman had warned the Perivale pupils to run.

The message said: “A very disturbing factor has come to light and we ask you all to caution your children to the fact that a woman in a gold coloured Toyota vehicle with registration numbers CA 367 275 is operating in the area. Thus far a few complaints have come in from learners at Perivale Primary School.

“This unknown woman solicits kids, stating she is from NBHW (neighbourhood watch) and that they must get into her car because she has clothes for them. Please people, warn your children, this woman is fair in complexion and wears a reflector vest/bib. She has apparently also been spotted in Pelican Park. Please pass this message to all. Stay safe and protect the children at all cost.”

Ms Williams was shocked when she read the message because she has worked in the community for many years.

“My son attends the same school the messages allege I steal children at. The police and several people have pulled me over to question me about my car and my intentions when I patrol. Since then, I have been on high alert because what if someone sees the message, pulls me over and hurts me because they think I abduct children? I am scared to do the community work I did before and I would like my name to be cleared of these allegations.”

Grassy Park CPF spokesman, Philip Bam, said that to “avoid causing panic” neighbourhood watches should first verify information with the police or CPF before posting on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter or other social media.

“It is highly irresponsible to be spreading rumours which could put people’s lives in danger,” he said, adding that the community was “already so stressed with all the crime happening” it didn’t need “irresponsible people” adding to that.

He said there had been just such an incident a week before Ms Williams was wrongly accused of kidnapping, when a post claimed a four-year-old had been kidnapped in Grassy Park.

“This was a complete misinterpretation of events. Resources were deployed, which could have been applied to fight crime,” he said.

The message accusing Ms Williams of kidnapping was posted by Shanaaz Sulaiman, chairwoman of a Ottery neighbourhood watch, on the Facebook group “Ottery en wat wat” and to other neighbourhood watch WhatsApp groups.

Ms Sulaiman said three boys had told her about a woman who had pulled up next to them offering them clothes and later food. “They identified the vehicle and registration number, and on that basis I sent out the message because in our day and with so many bad things happening one can’t take chances,” said Ms Sulaiman.

Ms Williams, however, said she often dished out food to children at her house when they passed and took clothes to the school for pupils in need.

Grassy Park Police spokesperson, Warrant Officer Wynita Kleinsmith ,confirmed that officers had indeed pulled Ms Williams over.

“Messages such as the ones that were sent cannot be ignored by us. We have to follow up on all information. So our officers did pull her over, but we can confirm that the information in the message is wrong.

“Ms Williams has been a long-standing community worker, and we have personally worked with her before. We can, with certainty, say that she is not a threat to children or the community.”

According to social media specialist Emma Sadlier, an admin of a WhatsApp group can be sued for defamation over content shared on that group. The same applies to Facebook, Twitter and other social media. South African law does not require a person to be the original poster of the defamatory content to be held liable – sharing a defamatory post is sufficient to constitute defamation. That includes a person who is knowingly tagged in a defamatory post and fails to take steps to dissociate themselves from it.”

Ms Williams said she would not take legal action, but she wants her name cleared.

“I hope that from this people can understand that not all the messages they receive on WhatsApp and that not all Facebook posts are true. People need to verify information before sending it on to other people. Tips for avoiding spreading false information:

Make sure of your facts. Do you have substantial evidence supporting them?

Verify information with official sources. Check your social media profiles to ensure that your name is not being linked to the defamatory statements of others.

Ensure the credibility of the participants of the group.