Words Can Kill


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"Words cannot change reality, but they can change how people perceive reality."


It is often said that actions speak louder than words and perhaps, in most situations, the actions define the outcome. However, in some ways, words can aggravate the consequences of actions and complicate its outcome.

Last 16th of June, 2017, Michelle Carter received a guilty verdict of involuntary manslaughter for the death of her friend, Conrad Roy III for having urged him to carry on with his plans of suicide and doing nothing while listening to him die.

In essence, Michelle was the close friend of Conrad, the person who knew about his suicidal ideations and his plans of carrying it out. She initially asked him to find help, but eventually, she apparently "accepted" that her friend wanted to do it. In the days prior to the day of suicide, she has repeatedly encouraged him to "get it over with". At that time, Michelle was 17 and Conrad was 18.  There were thousands of text messages exchanged over that period of time, but according to Judge Lawrence Moniz of Bristol County Juvenile Court, the phone call made during the suicide was what made it criminal.


"Just as her friend Conrad Roy III stepped out of the truck he had filled with lethal fumes, Ms. Carter told him over the phone to get back in the cab and then listened to him die without trying to help him."

Most legal experts believe the verdict of this case could have far-reaching implications in the state.


In my opinion (I am no legal expert, though), I think this case should make us think about laws relating to our behavior online, especially on social media. In recent years, with the increase in use of social media and increasing access to the internet, people have gone online to express their opinions and views on just about every issue there is. This, in itself, is good, because being given the capability to voice out ourselves in a platform that is also accessible to millions is somewhat an equalizer. Before, it was only people who work in the mainstream media (television and newspapers) and people who are popular and are celebrities have the access to a platform that can reach as many people. But nowadays, with the advent of social media, our reach is not even limited by the number of social media friends we have.  As long as our posts are public, it can be accessed by anyone who can access the Internet.

But the Internet can also be a bane. In the Philippines, I'm sure many of us here still remember the issue of Malu Fernandez, the Manila Daily Standard columnist who earned the dubious honor of being the most hated Filipino in 2007, when she wrote about "bravely" surviving a plane flight on economy class with OFWs "smelling of AXE and Charlie Cologne".  It was her condescending depiction of OFWs that got some concerned citizens and bloggers to start a call to action.  Malu Fernandez eventually resigned from the paper.

But Malu also claimed that because of the unfortunate article, she also received death threats and personal insults online.  I remember this quite clearly because I have written about it in my former, no defunct, personal blog.  I wrote about how Malu Fernandez deserved the negative feedback, but called out people for bringing the "lynch mob" mentality and how we should call out the monstrosity of Malu Fernandez but not to descend into the depths from which this monster came from.  I remember clearly how people also turned on me for "defending" Malu Fernandez, when I was merely calling for decency.

And based on what has been happening in recent years, Malu Fernandez was not the only person who's been lynched online.  Virtually everybody who's been caught doing seemingly questionable and offensive things and whose videos and photos were posted online have experienced being lynched, regardless whether they were truly guilty of the action or not.

People will also remember that, in 2012, "Amalayer girl" was caught on video berating an LRT security guard.  The issue between them has been easily settled, after a calm discussion.  But the video spread on social media, with people criticizing both of them.  Paula Salvosa, known as "Amalayer girl", opened up about her suicidal thoughts, having read and heard a lot of insults and even death threats online.  


"“Hindi na ako makalabas, may death threats, nakikilala nila ako, they were talking about me. Ang daming fan page na inaaway ako. Dumating sa point na even mga celebrities mina-mock ako, ginagawang laughing stock 'yung amalayer,” she said.
Salvosa said she even asked her father if she could legally change her name."
Paula made a mistake when she berated the security guard.  It was a mistake that was easily rectified when the involved parties were able to settle it after a calm discussion.  Even the security guard apologized for what had caused Paula distress that led her to do what she did.  And yet, instead of the situation just ending right there, it was magnified to a level which had worse consequences.  It became something that was too hurtful.  
Another example would be UPLB student Stephen Villena was came under fire for being "disrespectful" to then-presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte at a forum.  Given that he may have come across disrespectful by telling Duterte to answer a question direct to the point so that he could "go home", apparently, some of his supporters have deemed it enough to insult and issue death threats.  Some have created multiple fake facebook pages posting Villena's private and personal information online for the public to see (an internet-based practice called doxxing). 
And none of those people who caused the unnecessary distress, especially those who issued death threats, were called out for it or were made accountable for it.  And yet the effect caused by their actions caused distress disproportionate to the relevant situation and almost took a life.
Incidents like these always remind me of the Black Mirror episode, "Hated in the Nation".  The episode was about how detectives were trying to solve the inexplicable deaths of several people who have recently been most hated by most social media users because of misbehaviors (offensive remarks, one who outed a lewd man who turned out to have a disability, a celebrity who callously treated a young fan, a woman who took a photo of herself while seemingly peeing in front of a famous military war monument).  It turned out that the person responsible for the actual murders have utilized the internet to target his victims, starting a hashtag game of #DeathTo (followed by the name of the most hated person in the internet that netizens wanted to be killed) of which the murderer came to call, a Game of Consequence.  Apparently, the murderer had a history with the internet lynch mob and devised an intricate plan of getting back at the millions of people who take to internet to hate on other people, destroying their lives.
Conrad made that phone call to Michelle because he became unsure, having known what it's like to have his lungs filled with toxic fumes.  He called Michelle, perhaps, because he needed strength and confirmation that, indeed, he did not want to die (because if he wanted to, Conrad will not go out of that car).  But Michelle pressed on and told him TO GO BACK INSIDE.  She listened while he suffocated.  People who bullied Malu Fernandez, Paula Salvosa, Stephen Villena and countless others know how hurtful their words are, even to the point of being criminal.  Yet they continued, perhaps encouraged by the fact that, even if the person they are bullying indeed killed themselves, they weren't there to pull the trigger or to slice that artery or to pull that noose.  And yet, it may be the bullying words that pushed that other person to the brink and decided to kill themselves or bring harm to another.

Should anonymity afforded to us by the internet be a shield against accountability, especially for actions that would have been deemed criminal if done "offline"?  So, if the internet gives us a voice to reach out to millions of other people, which could have been next to impossible for those who are not celebrities or have no access to mainstream public communication, should that also allow us to inflict harm, thinking it was just mere "words"?  Should this affect our freedom of expression and our freedom to offend?

As the cliché goes, with great power comes great responsibility.  Technology gives us the power to be almost everywhere.  It gives us the power to keep connections worth keeping.  Perhaps we should also be mindful that we ensure that the lives we touch are not destroyed.  




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