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Monday, January 31, 2011

Intellectual freedom: New Media and Suicide Accusation

Recently, “Karajou” from Conservapedia contacted me regarding a claim that their site caused a suicide.
Imagine, if you will, that this is real, that the suicide had actually happened. It would be in the newspapers. It would be on TV. The news about it would be viral, and it would be nation-wide. How do I figure that? "CONSERVATIVE WEBSITE CAUSES MAN TO KILL HIMSELF" would be the screaming headline in big block letters; the mainstream media would have a field day from New York to Los Angeles; and Keith Olbermann would be in such a lather about it on his PMSNBC show that you could see the foam dribbling down the left side of his mouth. If there's anything to make conservatives look bad, this would be it. I can see Stephan Colbert staring down Andy again, with that goofy eyebrow of his lifted above those horn rim glasses.
Yes, I can imagine. We live in the age of truthing, birthing, grassy knolls, tinfoils, and people who think the government should run the media because US vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (2008) is supposedly responsible for a far-off madman’s murders. There appears to be no substance to the claim, but why would that matter these days?

As I have said elsewhere, free media actually reduce political violence, at least in North America:
... assassinations have declined markedly in the past three decades in the United States, due in no small part - in my view - to the rise of new media, including personal social media like the now much-blamed Facebook. People who can just say it, overwhelmingly, tend to just forget it after a while.

Yes, better security played an important role. But, in reality, a free world politician can’t just hide from the public. Elected representatives have logged how many minimal security public appearances across the United States, with how many assassination attempts? Let’s do the math: Very few attempts.

Probability thinking has its uses, and freakout avoidance is one. That is, if avoiding a freakout, rather than cultivating it, is what we want to do.
But, as I told Karajou, suppose there was even a possibility that reading something that upset him tipped a high-risk suicide over the edge? Some thoughts:
- People often act irrationally in the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide. Blaming a third party is common. It’s almost as common as pretending it wasn't really suicide.

In a way, one can see why people do it. It's almost like transferring suicide to the "murder" category. And what better way than pinning the "murder" on someone you don't like anyway?

It amounts to: "I can't cope with this terrible loss but I can link it to one of my existing hatreds."

Emotionally, it doubtless feels great for a while; as a way of coping, it's terrible.

- Of course a Web site was not to blame. If the posts depressed the man, he should have avoided them in principle, the way an alcoholic should avoid bars: Not bad for everybody, but bad for him.
News.gov is most certainly not the answer. Government-friendly media are lazy media, and they certainly won’t represent you.

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