I'm an animal lover. I own two Persian cats which I sometimes treat like spoilt brats. I'm an advocate against any forms of animal cruelty.

But when I see mass hysteria in reaction to incidents of animal cruelty (especially those spawned from fake or unreliable sources), dominating the social media and public discourse over stories of exploitation and human cruelty, you realise that not all is quite well in the state of Malta.

Unless you’ve been too busy staring at the August sun, a story broke on Monday after a man brutally killed a kitten outside a Golden Bay restaurant. The poor animal's death sentence was allegedly dictated by the fact that it was upsetting some patrons as it begged for food.

A patron posted a comment on Facebook linking a relative of the restaurant manager to the apparent cat killer, saying the manager seemed indifferent to the incident.

The post rightfully sparked anger and calls for action against the perpetrator. But within minutes, the comments were akin to a ruthless witch hunt reminiscent of the Spanish inquisition.

Read: A killed kitten sparks a trial by social media

Amid calls for a mass boycott of the restaurant, by the evening, the vitriol grew to such an extent that the owners were receiving death threats, many wanted them burnt at the stake, their pictures posted on social media, branded as murderers... 

Within minutes, the comments were akin to a ruthless witch hunt reminiscent of the Spanish inquisition

Despite the owners' repeated calls of innocence, nobody would have it – in the eyes of social media brigade the restaurant owners were undoubtedly guilty and had to be punished.

One example of the hateful speech that the kitten incident provoked.One example of the hateful speech that the kitten incident provoked.

We still don't know who killed the cat. What we do know is that the restaurant owners filed a police report about the incident themselves and that police are investigating. But it's too late – the restaurant owners will forever be known (in the eyes of many, at least) as the cat killers, even if they had nothing to do with it.

Even if the owners were behind the cruel act, it should not give anyone the right to act as judge, jury and executioner before they even had the chance to tell their side of the story.

We still simply do not understand the dangers of a trial by social media, of how we are putting people’s livelihoods, even lives in danger. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have seemingly given us the right to indulge in frequent exercises of public flagellation, even if we are merely armed with hearsay. In the digital world, misinformation travels faster than facts because it skips formalities.

Add to that the urge to assign blame and seek justice at once, and you have a recipe for mayhem.

We are so keen in spreading the rhetoric which ties in with our beliefs that we are prepared to disseminate misinformation in the bubble called Facebook.

I will not delve into the sorry state of society where the killing of a cat triggers more outrage than the fate of 120 migrants who were discovered living in a cattle farm. That's for another day.

But I think we all need to take a good look at ourselves and the way we’re so keen on blatantly spreading unverified content online.

We, the media, also have a major duty to avoid falling into reporting unreliable stories for the benefit of clicks.

Which is why it was utterly irresponsible for a news outlet to report as fact a mother’s claim that a black man had tried to abduct a child at G─žadira Bay.
Within minutes, the story turned into perfect fodder for migrant-haters as to why children should not be left anywhere in the vicinity of a black man… or even a foreigner.

Days later, it was revealed that the incident had been made up – it was simply a case of a woman upset with a black man who had ‘occupied’ her beach space – but the seeds of hate had been planted.

Read: Calls to prosecute mother who filed 'false' child abduction report

In May, Facebook vigilantes began sharing the photo of a young man they said was responsible for mowing down a policeman in Luqa. His only crime was sharing the same name as the alleged perpetrator.

Whether we like it or not, we have to abide by laws in our country.

Encouraging vigilantism is just as bad as physically harming another human being… or a helpless kitten.

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