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Sharing the Pain

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Social Media Sharing in Times of Tragedy

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Social media makes a monumental difference in the way we communicate. It allows us to have instant updates on politics, sporting events, celebrity sightings, crimes, and breaking news. It has also been utilized more and more during emergencies. On February 14, 2018 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz wandered through his school in Parkland, Florida, with a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle and left 17 students and teachers dead. During the shooting, students hid in classrooms waiting for help to arrive. Due to the ease with which mobile phones can both record and upload pictorial and video content, many of those students turned to social media to document and share the events that they were witnessing in those classrooms. According to a CNN report, one video showed students walking past lifeless bodies in the hallway. Other videos recorded the sounds of gunshots, followed by the screams of students.

Students shared recordings of SWAT teams evacuating classrooms, complete with trembling students being escorted to safety. Videos during the shooting were shared, some with the sound of gunshots in the background and students screaming in fear of where the gunman would fire next. Many believed that these postings on social media “provided the world with horrifying glimpses of what it’s like to hear a gunman roam the halls of your school.” The videos and social media updates that were posted were thought of as ways of communicating a posting student’s safety to family, friends, and online bystanders. Those in favor of such social media updates tended to agree that this was an effective way for “victims to give loved ones instant updates.”

For those worrying about the decision to quickly post content during emergencies, some pointed out that recording such tragic events and sharing them on social media may be counterproductive. Posting these traumatic events increased chances of the social media observers or “bystanders” being traumatized by the graphic content; unlike television coverage, there was no ratings scheme to worry about. According to Pam Ramsden, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bradford in the U.K., various studies have documented “vicarious traumatization,” or the negative psychological reaction following indirect exposure to traumatized people or events.

These instantaneous updates publicized on social media also bring up the question of accuracy of the shared content. During emergencies it’s natural to turn to social media to stay up-to-date, but there are times when what is being shared isn’t always factual or accurate. In 2012 a twitter user incorrectly tweeted that the New York Stock Exchange building was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. This quick, but inaccurate, burst of information was then “retweeted by news organizations and was spread across the nation, before being debunked.” Emergencies like these require for us to be as accurate as possible in order to get the correct information out to the public, as well as to encourage the proper police and public responses. In the case of the inaccurate Hurricane Sandy tweet, the possible actions of the first responders could have shifted due to the incorrect information provided. With students in school shootings posting frequently and almost instantly during emergencies, worries could arise over whether the accuracy and completeness of the provided information could possibly hurt the police’s initial responses, or if the publicity of accurate information could constrain processes of negotiation or surprise desired by police forces in their response to criminal activities.

It is clear that sharing this vivid and gripping content on social media has allowed it to reach a variety of different people that have not experienced the horrors of tragedies such as a school shooting firsthand. Such cases seem to further erode the line that once separated social media and professional news sources. It also brings to light possible benefits and disadvantages of these students sharing their experience as tragic events unfold. Is quickly making a tragedy or emergency real for distant others through the immediacy of social media the most beneficial way to react to these emergencies?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the main problems with sharing videos and accounts during a developing tragedy or emergency? What parties or individuals might be harmed by sharing news and updates this way?
  2. Assuming that people affected by an emergency will share information, updates, and content, what kind of guidelines would you give them? What values or ethical concepts underlie these guides to social media sharing in emergencies?
  3. Is it ethically important to consider the future effects of your shared content on others who are not present?
  4. How would you balance short-term needs to document and inform about a developing situation and longer-term needs of not expanding the number of those traumatized by a tragic event?

Further Information:

Sarah Almukhtar, K.K. Rebecca Lai, Anjali Singhvi, and Karen Yourish, “What happened inside the Florida school shooting.” New York Times, February 15, 2018. Available at:

British Psychological Society, “Viewing violent news on social media can cause trauma.” ScienceDaily, May 6, 2015. Available at: 2015/05/150506164240.htm

Alexandra Burlacu, “How social media is changing the ways we access news: study.” Tech Times, June 15, 2016. Available at: 20160615/how-social-media-is-changing-the-way-we-access-news-study.htm

Nicole Karlis, “On social media, Parkland students subvert the news cycle.” Salon, February 15, 2018. Available at:

Cory Nealon, “False tweets during Harvey, Irma under scrutiny by UB researchers.” University of Buffalo, September 28, 2017. Available at releases/2017/09/044.html

Rebecca Ruiz, “When school shootings are broadcast on Snapchat, the effects reverberate.” Mashable, February 15, 2018. Available at: 02/15/florida-school-shooting-twitter-snapchat/

Heather Schwedel, “Yes, students tweet mass shootings now. And we ought to watch it.” Slate, February 14, 2018. Available at:

Brian Stelter. “At Stoneman Douglas High School, cell phone videos take us inside a massacre.” CNN, February 15, 2018. Available at: 15/media/parkland-shooting-cell-phone-videos/index.html


Haley Turner
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
March 28, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Fake News, Fake Porn, and AI

CASE STUDY: “Deepfakes” and the Ethics of Faked Video Content

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The Internet has a way of both refining techniques and technologies by pushing them to their limits—and of bending them toward less-altruistic uses. For instance, artificial intelligence is increasingly being used to push the boundaries of what appears to be reality in faked videos. The premise of the phenomenon is straightforward: use artificial intelligence to seamlessly crop the faces of other people (usually celebrities or public figures) from an authentic video into other pre-existing videos.


Photo: Geralt / CC0

While some uses of this technology can be beneficial or harmless, the potential for real damage is also present. This recent phenomenon, often called “Deepfakes,” has gained media attention due to early adopters and programmers using it to place the face of female celebrities onto the bodies of actresses in unrelated adult film videos. A celebrity therefore appears to be participating in a pornographic video even though, in reality, they have not done so. The actress Emma Watson was one of the first targets of this technology, finding her face cropped onto an explicit porn video without her consent. She is currently embroiled in a lawsuit filed against the producer of the faked video. While the Emma Watson case is still in progress, the difficulty of getting videos like these taken down cannot be understated. Law professor Eric Goldman points out the difficulty of pursuing such cases. He notes that while defamation and slander laws may apply to Deepfake videos, there is no straightforward or clear legal path for getting videos like these taken down, especially given their ability to re-appear once uploaded to the internet. While pornography is protected as a form of expression or art of some producer, Deepfake technology creates the possibility of creating adult films without the consent of those “acting” in it. Making matters more complex is the increasing ease with which this technology is available: forums exist with users offering advice on making faked videos and a phone app is available for download that can be employed by basically anyone to make a Deepfake video using little more than a few celebrity images.

Part of the challenge presented by Deepfakes concerns a conflict between aesthetic values and issues of consent. Celebrities or targets of faked videos did not consent to be portrayed in this manner, a fact which has led prominent voices in the adult film industry to condemn Deepfakes. One adult film company executive characterized the problem with Deepfakes in a Variety article: “it’s f[**]ed up. Everything we do … is built around the word consent. Deepfakes by definition runs contrary to consent.” It is unwanted and potentially embarrassing to be placed in a realistic porn video in which one didn’t actually participate. These concerns over consent are important, but Deepfakes muddies the waters by involving fictional creations and situations. Pornography, including fantasy satires based upon real-life figures such as the disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, is protected under the First Amendment as a type of expressive activity, regardless of whether those depicted or satirized approve of its ideas and activities. Nudity and fantasy situations play a range of roles in expressive activity, some with private contexts and some with public contexts. For instance, 2016 saw the installation of several unauthorized—and nude—statues of then-candidate Donald Trump across the United States. Whether or not we judge the message or use of these statues to be laudatory, they do seem to evoke the aesthetic values of creativity and expression that conflicts with a focus on consent to be depicted in a created (and possibly critical) artifact. Might Deepfakes, especially those of celebrities or public figures, ever be a legitimate form of aesthetic expression of their creators, in a similar way that a deeply offensive pornographic video is still a form of expression of its creators? Furthermore, not all Deepfakes are publically exhibited and used in connection with their target’s name, thereby removing most, if not all, of the public harm that would be created by their exhibition. When does private fantasy become a public problem?

Beyond their employment in fictional, but realistic, adult videos, the Deepfakes phenomena raises a more politically-concerning issue. Many are worried that Deepfakes have the potential to damage the world’s political climate through the spread of realistic faked video news. If seeing is believing, might our concerns about misinformation, propaganda, and fake news gain a new depth if all or part of the “news” item in question is a realistic video clip serving as evidence for some fictional claim? Law professors Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron consider a range of scenarios in which Deepfakes technology could prove disastrous when utilized in fake news: “false audio might convincingly depict U.S. officials privately ‘admitting’ a plan to commit this or that outrage overseas, exquisitely timed to disrupt an important diplomatic initiative,” or “a fake video might depict emergency officials ‘announcing’ an impending missile strike on Los Angeles or an emergent pandemic in New York, provoking panic and worse.” Such uses of faked video could create compelling, and potentially harmful, viral stories with the capacity to travel quickly across social media. Yet in a similar fashion to the licentious employments in forged adult footage, one can see the potential aesthetic values of Deepfakes as a form of expression, trolling, or satire in some political employments. The fairly crude “bad lip reading” videos of the recent past that placed new audio into real videos for humorous effect will soon give way to more realistic Deepfakes involving political and celebrity figures saying humorous, satirical, false, or frightening things. Given AI’s advances and Deepfake technology’s supercharging of how we can reimagine and realistically depict the world, how do we legally and ethically renegotiate the balance among the values of creative expression, the concerns over the consent of others, and our pursuit of truthful content?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Beyond the legal worries, what is the ethical problem with Deepfake videos? Does this problem change if the targeted individual is a public or private figure?
  2. Do your concerns about the ethics of Deepfakes videos depend upon them being made public, and not being kept private by their creator?
  3. Do the ethical and legal concerns raised concerning Deepfakes matter for more traditional forms of art that use nude and non-nude depictions of public figures? Why or why not?
  4. How might artists use Deepfakes as part of their art? Can you envision ways that politicians and celebrities could be legitimately criticized through the creation of biting but fake videos?
  5. How would you balance the need to protect artists (and others’) interest in expressing their views with the public’s need for truthful information? In other words, how can we control the spread of video-based fake news without unduly infringing on art, satire, or even trolling?

Further Information:

Robert Chesney & Danielle Citron, “Deep fakes: A looming crisis for national security, democracy and privacy?” Lawfare, February 26, 2018. Available at:

Megan Farokhmanesh, “ Is it legal to swap someone’s face into porn without consent?” The Verge, January 30, 2018. Available at: 2018/1/30/16945494/deepfakes-porn-face-swap-legal

James Felton, March 13). “’Deep fake’ videos could be used to influence future global politics, experts warn.” IFLScience, March 13, 2018. Available at:

Janko Roettgers, “Porn producers offer to help Hollywood take down deepfake videos.” Variety, February 21, 2018. Available at: digital/news/deepfakes-porn-adult-industry-1202705749/


James Hayden & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
March 21, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Ethics and Artistic Appropriation

CASE STUDY: Taking Charging Bull by the Horns

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In the wake of the global stock market crash of 1987, the Sicilian immigrant Arturo Di Modica created the guerilla artwork known as Charging Bull. Without permission, and after spending $350,000 of his own funds, Di Modica had the bull installed in 1989 near Wall Street in New York City during the height of Christmas season to symbolize the strength and power of the American people. Many tourists and locals alike loved the Charging Bull and identified it as “the only significant work of guerrilla capitalist art in existence.” The New York Stock Exchange quickly removed the 3.5-ton statue the day it was installed, but the resulting public outcry led to its “temporary installation” in a nearby location; thirty years later, Charging Bull is still standing strong as one of the most iconic symbols of New York City. On March 7, 2017, Charging Bull was faced with a new opponent.

During the night before International Women’s Day in March 2017, a small sculpture of a young girl was quietly placed in front of Charging Bull. Known as Fearless Girl, the unscheduled installation stands defiantly with her hands on her hips and faces the bull with an unwavering confidence. At the feet of the statue was a bronze plaque that reads “Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference.” The initial reaction from many people was that this was another act of guerrilla art, one particularly needed now given Wall Street’s challenges with gender equity and diversity. The work’s sculptor, Kristen Visbal, further enabled such a reading explaining her work: “She’s not angry at the bull, she’s confident, she knows what she’s capable of and she’s wanting the bull to take note.” But looks can be deceiving. State Street Global Advisors, a prominent financial firm which oversees $2.5 trillion in assets, invested in Fearless Girl to promote their “Gender Diversity Index,” a fund that “invests in U.S. large-capitalization companies that rank among the highest in their sector in achieving gender diversity across senior leadership.” The use of “SHE” in the inspirational plaque quotation may be meant as a gender pronoun, but in its capitalized form it is also the NASDAQ ticker symbol for the promoted State Street Global Advisors fund. A Bloomberg report indicated that the statue generated an estimated $7.4 million in free marketing for the investment firm in the first two months after the statue’s installation.

Arturo Di Modica was not consulted about the placement of Fearless Girl, and he did not share the same excitement of those who saw the installation of Fearless Girl as an amazing addition to the territory occupied by his Charging Bull. Di Modica demanded that Fearless Girl be removed and placed elsewhere because it takes away the power of his work, largely by reframing its meaning. His inspirational bull ceased to be the protagonist of the Wall Street story, and quickly became the antagonist in a larger drama—a representation of the Wall Street orthodoxy that is accused of holding women back from true equality in the world of business. The city removed Fearless Girl, but she was quickly placed back in front of the bull due to the resulting public uproar. Di Modica is still outraged and wants Fearless Girl gone. He claims that his bull is “for art,” while Fearless Girl is a manipulative marketing scheme orchestrated by a big firm. Other critics joined him in denouncing Fearless Girl as an act of “corporate feminism,” a “marketing coup,” and an advertising trick.

The controversy centers on how art communicates and when reframing existing art is unethical or wrong. Fearless Girl would lose its meaning and importance without Charging Bull; she would simply be a confident little girl, and not a statement about Wall Street’s gender problems. Di Modica argues that Fearless Girl harms the meaning of his artwork: by reframing or re-appropriating the meaning of Charging Bull through the addition of another statue, Di Modica’s work now seems tied to a meaning and significance he did not intend. Di Modica still owns Charging Bull and can move it if he so desires, but he has so far advocated for the removal of the more recently added statue that reframes his original work.

Those who side with the creators of Fearless Girl believe that it is a valid instance of appropriation or re-appropriation in art, often a rich practice of reframing existing art or symbols in order for ostracized social and cultural groups to challenge the traditional social order or powerful organizations. When seen as a reaction to the iconic artistic symbol of Wall Street, the message Fearless Girl depicts to many viewers the message that women are extremely powerful, uplifting, and encouraging. While Di Modica was fighting to have the statue removed, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the dispute, tweeting that “Men who don’t like women taking up space are exactly why we need the Fearless Girl.” Standing confident, unafraid and unwilling to back down, Fearless Girl’s impact would not be as affective without Charging Bull. According to de Blasio, Fearless Girl asserts that “women were not going to live in fear, that women were going to teach their daughters and all the women in their lives to believe in themselves.” The company who backed Fearless Girl explains that they wanted to “raise awareness and drive a conversation around the need to improve gender diversity in corporate leadership roles.” They clearly succeeded to do so by using Fearless Girl to reframe the meaning of Charging Bull—but did their fearless pursuit of gender equality go too far? 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Was Charging Bull’s meaning changed by the addition of Fearless Girl? Was the original work—or its artist—harmed in any way?
  1. Should Fearless Girl be placed elsewhere? Should she stay? If you advocate moving her to another location, would you insist on moving Charging Bull as well?
  1. Is it ethical for the creator of Fearless Girl to use another artist’s work as part of her own message or artwork? What if incorporating, reframing, or visibly critiquing a previous work was the only way to express the point an artist wanted to make?
  1. What ethical limits would you place on artists wanting to reframe the artworks produced by previous artists?
  1. Do the details concerning the artists and their funders matter to judgments about the aesthetic merits of each of these work? If these details changed, would your conclusions about the ethical and aesthetic worth of Fearless Girl change?

Further Information: 

Bill Eggbert, “Bullshift! City may try to move Charging Bull statue.” Downtown Express, March 1, 2018. Available at: /03/01/bullshift-city-may-try-to-move-charging-bull-statue/

Greg Fallis, “Seriously, the guy has a point.” April 14, 2017. Available at:

Lawrence Husick, “Ask Dr. Copyright about Fearless Girl and copyright appropriation.” May 5, 2017. Available at:

Jill Mavro, “Driving gender diversity with a bold new statement.” March 7, 2017. Available at:

Liam Stack, “‘Fearless Girl’ statue to stay in financial district (for now).” New York Times, March 27, 2017. Available at: nyregion/fearless-girl-statue-de-blasio.html


Morgan Malouf & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
March 10, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Suicide, Fiction, and Ethics

CASE STUDY: 13 Reasons Why and Fictional Depictions of Suicide

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On March 31, 2017, Netflix aired 13 Reasons Why, an unconventional show that centers on the suicide of a 17-year-old character, Hannah Baker. This character takes her life and only leaves a box of 13 cassette tapes, each one naming a person in her life and explaining how they caused her to commit suicide. The students addressed on the tapes spend the entirety of the 13-episode season trying to come to terms with her death. The show was quite graphic in its portrayals of teen tragedies: it featured an instance of horrific sexual abuse, and the finale ends with a two-minute long scene of Hannah slitting her wrist in the bathtub, later to be found by her parents.

Red Heart On Railway Stop Teenager Suicide

Photo: Max Pixel/CC0

In a case of life potentially imitating art, 15-year-old Bella Herndon committed suicide three days after she binge-watched 13 Reasons Why. Her dad, John Herndon, told reporters that Bella has been bullied since middle school and has struggled with depression. However, a few weeks before Bella’s death, her dad said, “She was doing great. We put her in a new school. She had new friends. They were coming over. She was interacting with them, it was very positive.” Bella’s dad felt that the show was a trigger for his daughter because it seemed to present the idea that suicide is a justified response to the difficulties of bullying. Pleading with the show’s creators, Herndon said, “Stop this. This is wrong. You’re making money off the misery of others.” The producers responded to the Herndon family and other outraged parties with this statement:

Our hearts go out to these families during this difficult time. We have heard from many viewers that 13 Reasons Why has opened up a dialogue among parents, teens, schools and mental health advocates around the difficult topics depicted in the show. We took extra precautions to alert viewers to the nature of content and created a global website to help people find local mental health resources.

Part of the worry over this show concerned a dispute of exactly what effects its gripping depiction of teen suicide had on real audiences. Was its attempt at realism and dramatic portrayal effective at reducing the allure of suicide? The writer of the show, Brian Yorkey, claims, “What we did was portray suicide and we portrayed it as very ugly and very damaging.” Selena Gomez, the co-producer of the show, stated that they “wanted to do [it] in a way where it was honest and could hopefully help people because suicide should never ever be an option.” Gomez and the show’s other co-creators thought this fictional narrative would spur depressed and suicidal teens to reach out for help and support, making such challenges a matter of serious discussion. Gomez issued another statement saying, “I think that stuff is uncomfortable for people to talk about, but it is happening and hopefully it opened the door for people to actually accept what’s happening and actually go and change it, talk about it.” 

Many mental health advocates and psychologists voiced concerns that this show would only produce more “copycat” responses of suicide. A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that after the show aired there was an increase in Google searches using such search strings as “how to commit suicide” and “how to kill yourself.” These searches far exceeded other search terms during this time for strings such as “suicide hotline” and “suicide prevention.” Though searches for both pro- and anti-suicide search strings increased after the airing of this show, the worrisome “pro-suicide” searches were 17% higher than searches aimed at preventing suicides.

Connected to these worries were important choices by the show’s creators regarding aesthetic matters of realism and emotional impact which sometimes conflicted with more ideal—but less gripping—ways of depicting suicide. Some psychologists expressed concerns with how suicide was depicted in the show’s fictional narrative. For instance, after Hannah committed suicide, her high school locker was turned into a memorial. While this seems like a very possible reaction of her peers, some psychologists pointed out that this is not a constructive way for schools to react in response to a student’s suicide. Such an action may be understood by some students as glamorizing an act of suicide. Even the central narrative device of Hannah leaving tapes explaining how she was mistreated by students and peers was also criticized, since it seemed to display suicide as a possibly legitimate or effective form of revenge. Given such concerns, suicide prevention specialists had advised the producers to not release the series.

The first season aired despite these complaints, and plans were set for another season of 13 Reasons Why. This second iteration added a viewer warning before the show’s first episode in addition to its existing TV-MA (mature audiences only) rating, and graphic warning signs were placed before the episodes containing depictions of sexual abuse and suicide. Netflix has also launched an accompanying website ( that contains information for viewers struggling with suicide and mental health issues.

Recent studies exploring the effects of both seasons of 13 Reasons Why have added oxygen to the controversies surrounding this show. A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry showed a 28.9% increase in suicide among Americans ages 10-17 in the month following the show’s release (Schwartz, 2019). While this study cannot prove that the show caused this increase, this finding is worrisome for the defenders of the show’s positive effects. The empirical results are not conclusive, however; a Netflix spokesperson pointed to another study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania which found that viewers of the second season aged 18-29 “reported declines in suicide ideation and self-harm relative to those who did not watch the show at all.” This second study also found that those who ceased watching the second season of 13 Reasons Why before its end “exhibited greater suicide risk and less optimism about the future than those who continued to the end” (Schwartz, 2019).

The series’ co-producer, Selena Gomez, admits that “the content is complicated, it’s dark and it has moments that are honestly really hard to swallow.” But questions remain about potentially limiting film and art in general if they turn out to be harmful. Critics of this show continue to ask—is such a realistic and gripping narrative the best way to address the tragedy of teen suicide most effectively?

Discussion Questions:           

  1. Should have the creators of 13 Reasons Why written and produced the show in this specific way? Why or why not?
  2. What are the important ethical decisions that must be made by a show depicting teen suicide and mental health issues?
  3. What are the conflicts between artistic or aesthetic values and ethical values in this case?
  4. Must good art always have positive effects? What if an artwork created negative consequences among those watching or listening to it?
  5. How should an artist balance the value of creativity with concerns of social benefit? What if the most realistic depiction of some phenomena wasn’t the best way to prevent future cases of it?

Further Information:

“Families blame ’13 Reasons Why’ for 2 teens’ suicides.” Fox News, June 27, 2017. Available at:

Jon Blistein, “Netflix adds more advisory warnings to ’13 Reasons Why.’” Rolling Stone, May 2, 2017. Available at:

Katie Kindelan and Sabina Ghebremdhin, “2 California families claim ‘13 Reasons Why’ triggered teens’ suicides.” ABC News, June 28, 2017. Available at:

“2 families endure suicides, blame popular Netflix show.” KTVU, June 26, 2017. Available at:

Lindsay Holmes, “’13 Reasons Why’ led to a major increase in suicide internet searches.” Huffington Post, August 2, 2017. Available at: 5980808be4b0d6e28a107dbe

Sadaf Ahsan, “Did 13 Reasons Why lead to a rise in suicide rates?” National Post, August 1, 2017. Available at:

Matthew Schwartz, “Teen Suicide Spiked After Debut Of Netflix’s ’13 Reasons Why,’ Study Says.” National Public Radio, April 30, 2019. Available at:


Morgan Malouf
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
May 6, 2019

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

The Real Ethics of Fake News

Did you miss the talk on “The Real Ethics of Fake News” by Dr. Scott R. Stroud (University of Texas at Austin), the Director of the Media Ethics Initiative? Check it out here–for real!


Bullying our First Amendment?

CASE STUDY: Texting, Bullying, and Free Speech

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It is hard to decide where the freedoms granted by the First Amendment start and end. We can agree on certain problematic utterances that we wouldn’t say out loud, but are we confident enough in these judgments to legally punish these speech acts—and other similar ones we don’t anticipate? This was the conundrum brought up by the case of 17 year-old Michelle Carter, who convinced her boyfriend Conrad Roy III to commit suicide. Carter helped Roy construct his method of suicide, then followed with a month of persuading him into finalizing the plan. Through a barrage of text messages over the course of a month, she convinced him to go through the plan by explaining that “everyone will be sad for a while, but will get over it and move on” and telling him that “the time was right and he’s ready, he just needed to do it!” On what would be his final day alive, Carter texted Roy informing him “that if he didn’t do it now he’d never do it” and then made him “promise” to follow through. The following morning Roy was found dead in his car from inhalation of carbon monoxide. In court, Carter was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and the legal arguments centered over whether these texts actually and primarily caused Roy’s death.


Photo: 14398/CC0 1.0

Should Carter have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter from texts messages sent to her boyfriend? The case against Carter was motivated largely by the idea that bullying with words is harmful and should be equated to physical actions in such extreme cases. Roy did not seem intent on committing suicide until the repeated urgings of Carter occurred. As Jason Le Miere reports, he attempted to abort the suicide attempt through carbon monoxide poisoning instigated by her texts, but then resumed his efforts after she messaged him to “get back in” the car that was slowly filling with lethal gas. If bullying can cause psychological and physical harm, society ought to have an ethical and legal justification to punish those who use speech in this way. Those making this argument also believe that punishing such cases of harmful words will hopefully stop future cases of cyberbullying. According to many, Carter went too far with her negative text messages and was the primary cause of her boyfriend’s act of suicide.

Those defending Carter from legal responsibility for murder argued that “speech that is reckless, hateful and ill-willed nevertheless enjoys First Amendment protection.” They believe that while the words can be potentially hurtful, the act of sending a text message is not equivalent to pulling a trigger and killing someone with a gun. The boyfriend’s actions, while related to the speech of Carter, were not the only possible result of hearing those words. Such an argument might go that however mean and callous her utterances were, his reaction to them was of his own free choosing. Professor Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School points out one challenge of finding Carter guilty of manslaughter: “What it does is just put people on notice that there could be extreme enough cases where prosecutors and judges find that [speech] has become homicide. Up to now ordinarily, we don’t find that mere remarks to a victim are sufficient.” The Director of the American Civil Liberty Union’s Massachusetts affiliate, Matthew Segal, voices similar worries: “This is a killing in which the murder weapon was words, and that is an incredibly broad view of causation and an incredibly broad view of the manslaughter laws in Massachusetts and creates serious concerns about expanding criminal law without doing so through the legislature.”

As Robby Soave points out, complicating matters in this case was Carter’s status as a minor, as well as concerns about her struggling with mental illness. An additional worry is sorting out what sort of ethical and legal precedent this decision sets for cases of assisted suicide or euthanasia. As Matthew Segal speculates, “If you have a couple who’ve been together for decades and one says to the other, ‘I’m in terrible pain,’ and the spouse responds with saying, ‘I don’t want to see you go, but I think it’s the right thing for you, you should commit suicide,’ and then the person does it, I gather in Massachusetts, the commonwealth’s view is that is a crime and that spouse at our discretion can be put in prison for potentially a very long period of time.” Many want to treat euthanasia and cyberbullying as different types of actions, but the reasoning of this case shows how challenging it can be to draw this moral and legal line. How should our speech be treated in cases where others end up harming themselves?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree that Carter should be held legally and ethically accountable for her text messages to Roy?
  1. Should we hold individuals legally responsible for the actions that others do in response to our speech acts? Does it matter if we say something once or many times to the other person?
  1. Thinking about the ethical issues brought up by this case, can you imagine a less extreme situation where text messages caused a suicide? When might you have trouble drawing the line between crude jokes, general bullying, and blameworthy speech that seems to be a primary cause of someone taking their life?
  1. What might be the relevant distinction between speech that assists or appears to contribute to an act of euthanasia and speech that seemingly causes the suicide of another person? How would you construct a principle or rule that distinguishes the legality or morality of these two action types?

Further Information:  

Barbara Demick. “Woman who encouraged Boyfriend to kill himself via Text is sentenced to 15 Months in Jail.” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2017. Available at:

Paul LeBlanc. “The Text Messages that led up to Teen’s Suicide.” CNN, June 16, 2017. Available at:

Jason Le Miere. “What Michelle Carter’s Guilty Verdict for telling her Boyfriend to kill himself means for Free Speech and Assisted Suicide.” Newsweek, June 16, 2017. Available at:

Robby Soave. “Michelle Carter didn’t kill with a Text.” New York Times, June 16, 2017. Available at:


Haley Turner & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
February 14, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

danah boyd on Digital Ethics

The Media Ethics Initiative Presents:

Hacking Big Data:

Discovering Vulnerabilities in a Sociotechnical Society

Dr. danah boyd

Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research ¦ Founder of Data & Society Institute

March 6, 2018 ¦ Moody College of Communication ¦ University of Texas at Austin



Dr. danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the founder and president of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. Her research is focused on addressing social and cultural inequities by understanding the relationship between technology and society. Her most recent books – “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” and “Participatory Culture in a Networked Age” – examine the intersection of everyday practices and social media. She is a 2011 Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Director of both Crisis Text Line and Social Science Research Council, and a Trustee of the National Museum of the American Indian. She received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Brown University, a master’s degree from the MIT Media Lab, and a Ph.D in Information from the University of California, Berkeley. This event was co-sponsored by the Global Media Industry Speaker Series.

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