5 Weird Realities Of Suicide (Thanks To Twitter)
Whether you love or hate social media, you have to admit it has made it easier than ever to spread awareness for a case. Stories about police brutality stay in the news for weeks rather than being swept under the rug; people who have been wronged by corporations can have their stories go viral and get actual results. That's because people just love standing up for good causes when it requires nothing more than a click.
But you know what people hate? Research. As a result, misinformation spreads like wildfire even among people who think they're doing good ... maybe more so, since self-righteousness is like napalm in this metaphor. We sat down with one woman, Amber McCullers, who saw this happen firsthand when a family tragedy was hijacked by social media and spun into a hashtag movement ... one that had nothing to do with the truth.
The Newspapers Trust Twitter First
In May 2012, over three years ago, Amber's brother Blake committed suicide by hanging himself from a tree in the family's front yard. "He didn't leave a note," Amber says, "but we think we have a good idea about why he did it." Neither Amber nor her family ever shared what they thought that reason was (because it's nobody's business), but, somehow, a bunch of people got it into their heads that Blake had committed suicide because he was gay and being bullied. Despite the fact that there was zero evidence to support either of those theories, the media took that story and ran with it. As long as you have a powerful narrative about a hot-button issue, who cares if it's actually true?
Mr. Nielsen doesn't dole out double points for doing your homework, after all.
And they certainly couldn't, you know, actually wait until they spoke to the family. "They did ask for an interview once," says Amber, "but we were running late for an appointment at the funeral home ... and they refused to reschedule for even an hour later. Instead, they just printed stuff they read on Facebook and Twitter written by people [who] didn't even know him." Because this is what journalism looks like in the 21st century, and they knew that a gay bullied kid committing suicide was the perfect viral news story.
"'The family could not be reached for comment.' There, ass covered."
So where did that story come from? Well, like former U.S. President George W. Bush, Blake was a cheerleader in high school. Thousands of Twitterers assumed that meant he was gay and, since he'd committed suicide, that he had been the victim of vicious bullying as well. Amber stresses that even if Blake was gay, there's absolutely no evidence that he was ever a victim of bullying. He came from a very open-minded family and went to a progressive school:
"My best friend and I restarted the GSA (Gay-Straight Alliance) at our high school and organized A Day Of Silence every year, which most of the student body participated in and the teachers encouraged. Our high school was also a model arts school famed for our drama club and band, whereas our sports teams all sucked. This meant that all the artsy kids were more popular than the buff sporty kids, and being homophobic was more likely to get you mocked than being gay was."
People On Social Media Pick Their Own Narrative
There's no faster way to create an infinite feedback loop of online anger than to post a story that simultaneously makes people enraged and gives them an opportunity to let everyone else on the Internet know how angry they are. The sort of righteous indignation these articles generate can be habit-forming. "It's weirdly like people wanted my brother's suicide to have been a result of bullying," Amber says. "They weren't willing to entertain any other possibility."
Once the Internet decided to just assume it knew the truth behind Blake's suicide, it responded with the traditional music of their people: a hashtag. "This led to a minor social media trend, #LoveMoreJudgeLess, which was very sweet, in theory," Amber says. "But [it] hurt that he was being remembered for something that wasn't true." Remember, the whole setup of Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook is that you can share a post with a single click -- pausing to fact-check just gets in the way. Sure enough, #LoveMoreJudgeLess took off like a goddamn rocket:
Love more, judge less, fact-check none.
You can see right away how there'd be mixed emotions here. All of these people meant well. But there is a preponderance of (true) stories about gay kids being bullied into committing suicide, and these stories go viral with regularity. Justifiably so -- it's important to raise awareness about the harm that can be caused by ignorant dickheads with the bullhorn of the Internet, and stories like these deserve to be spread:
But, at the same time, when people start using their outrage over strangers' tragedies as a way to define themselves to the mass of acquaintances in their social media feeds, the sharing becomes less about awareness and more about hopping on the "I'm a forward-thinking good person" bandwagon. The actual victim is no longer a person but an abstract symbol for a movement.
Amber didn't actually become aware of the hashtag movement behind Blake's death until she began obsessively Googling her brother's name. "I was looking for stuff he'd posted before he died for clues. But I started to see cheerleaders as far away as Russia writing 'LoveMoreJudgeLess' on their hands."
Comes off easily with soap and water, for the next morning when you're ready to champion something else.
Again -- we'll never know exactly why Blake chose to commit suicide. But writings Amber and her family uncovered later have led them to believe that it was anxiety and frustration over the opposite sex, that all-too-common male teen fear of not being able to get a girlfriend, that spurred on his tragic actions:
"The night he committed suicide, he'd had to cancel a date with a girl he'd been chasing for months because he was grounded," Amber says. And you know what? If that's true, then that's an important story too. Blake is far from the first young man to grapple with that sort of depression and anxiety, and it's easy for a lot of us to forget that when you're in high school, everything seems 100 times more permanent than it actually is. That story never got told, though, because once the bullshit starts ...
There's No Putting The Bullshit Back In The Bottle
Here's how the Sun Sentinel, the local newspaper, covered Blake's suicide:
You can find the original text of the Sun Sentinel article here. While they do point out that Blake was well-liked and popular, they also devote a significant amount of space to the hashtag campaign and, critically, when it came time to promote the article through social media, the Sun Sentinel led with details of the hashtag campaign.
Soon, it went national. "The Huffington Post basically just copied and pasted it. I called both. The Sun Sentinel never got back to me, [but] the Huffington Post actually retracted the article. The Sun Sentinel never ran a retraction, but they went with an article the next week about how not to trust social media. They obliquely referenced our case, but they never gave the actual truth."
Congratulations, Sun Sentinel: You officially have less integrity than a group of lazy plagiarists.
One of the reasons a story like this can get out of hand is because, for some publications, fact-checking just exists to flesh out the story they've already decided to tell. For example, the Sun Sentinel interviewed Blake's school principal to ask if Blake had been gay or the victim of bullying. "He said he didn't know about any of his student's sexualities, [and that] he didn't know of any students being bullied over [their] sexuality. [The newspaper] chopped it up at 'the principal said he didn't know what [Blake's] sexuality was.'"
How they resisted editing it further to "The principal said ... sex" is anyone's guess.
Amber was diligent and managed to correct much of the misinformation, but it was difficult because so many had already made up their minds the instant they saw the "LoveMoreJudgeLess" hashtag. "They were willing to trust Twitter a lot more than they were willing to trust Blake's actual family." A social media movement had left the station, and nothing stops that train.
The Internet, refusing to listen to a woman? THE HELL YOU SAY.
And if all of that still seems mostly harmless, you're not imagining what it's like to be a family just trying to mourn in private. Suddenly ...
Facebook Becomes A Tactless Battleground
The era of social media has given us access to a side of our dead loved ones we never had before: All their pictures, commentary, and snapshots of their social life are immortalized forever in digital form. Thus, Blake's Facebook page continued to exist after his death (as do millions of pages of deceased people) and you can guess what happened next. If you've ever actually used Facebook, you've probably noticed that, in addition to being a wonderful tool for keeping in touch with your friends and family, it's also a wonderful tool for starting vicious online arguments with your friends and family:
"People had flame wars ... about what was going on with his death. There were whole things when I had to step in and be like, 'Can you guys stop?' We did contact FB and asked them to turn off the page entirely, and they said, 'No, we don't do that.' You can turn it into a memorial. But you can't take it down." Because Facebook, above all else, is a fucking monster.
"We only intervene when somebody posts something truly terrible. Like a breastfeeding mother."
And when a death turns into a public news story/controversy, suddenly there's an audience (or the perception of one), and that's when the grandstanding starts. Under normal, human circumstances, people would be offering personal condolences only to the friends and family. But when a death ties into a fiercely debated social issue? Suddenly there's a spotlight and everyone comes running ...
Some Folks Have To Make It About Them
Blake's family decided to have an open podium at his funeral, meaning anyone was welcome to come up and say a few words about Blake and what Blake had meant to them. It's a lovely idea in theory, because it allows all his friends and classmates an opportunity to share their feelings about his death. But if there's one thing Internet comments sections have taught the world, it's that some people's opinions are shitty and useless. Amber and the McCullers family learned that firsthand:
"People who I'd known but who hadn't known him acted like it was something that had directly happened to them even though they'd spoken maybe six words to him. A girl I'd known years ago [but who didn't know Blake] came to his funeral and gave this big speech about how people who are suicidal are assholes, [because] she'd been depressed but got over it."
"Also, fuck people who die from broken necks! I stubbed my toe once and you don't see me on no cooling board."
You remember that one insufferable kid whose mom brought presents for him when he went to other kids' birthday parties? This was like that, only instead of a birthday, it was a dead teenager's funeral:
"We had a neighbor ... when my brothers were little, she used to accuse them of running by her windows and peeking in, even during times when they'd been with my mom. She told my mom if she'd kept him on a tighter leash and 'yelled at him when he harassed me,' he might still be alive." Another attendee claimed she'd "spoken to a psychic" and learned that Blake had killed himself because he didn't want his parents to know he'd smoked a cigarette.
"She needed to have some insight, because she couldn't not be at the center of it," Amber says. "That was the case across the board, with the worst of them: They all wanted a little piece of my family tragedy for themselves."
And that, ultimately, was the story behind #LoveMoreJudgeLess -- a world of total strangers, each wanting a piece of Blake for their own agenda. The intent here is not to cast doom and gloom all over social media activism -- the digital age has made it easier than ever to focus and concentrate empathy toward a productive purpose. But it's also given us this weird expectation of ownership over the lives of every other person out there, so that their personal tragedies just become content for our own social media feeds. Here were people on the other side of the planet posting support for a situation they didn't understand, while real-life acquaintances had seemingly forgotten that at the center of all of this was an actual human being.
"Maybe," offers Amber, "technology has made us more human to people who are far away, but less human to people who are close?"
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things I Learned Committing A Campus Sexual Assault and Everyone Assumes You're Violent: Realities Of Being Bipolar.
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