When Words Are Deadly Weapons: Michelle Carter´s Conviction

Would you rather text than talk? Beware the power of electronic persuasion

Posted Jun 24, 2017

Friends Turned Frenemies: Susceptibility to Electronic Aggression

Choose your friends carefully. Your life may depend on it, as evidenced by the increase in tragic cyber bullying-prompted suicides we have seen across the country in recent years.[i]  We live in a world where words are used as weapons.  Surprisingly, even between friends.

A 2016 study by Felmlee and Faris found that youth cyber aggression occurs more frequently between friends (current or former) and dating partners.[ii] They found online aggression to be more likely between individuals with close, intimate ties, as compared to between individuals with more distant connections.

Acknowledging that friendships appear to increase, not decrease, the likelihood of electronic aggression, Felmlee and Faris also note such aggression presumably stems from revenge, competition, or attempt to repel romantic rivals.

A recent heartbreaking case of teen romance-turned-encouraged-suicide drives home the extent to which words can be used as weapons.

Words as Deadly Weapons

The use of words as weapons was litigated in the criminal trial against Michelle Carter, who at 17 years old, encouraged her late boyfriend Conrad Roy to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his truck.

Michelle Carter was convicted by a judge of involuntary manslaughter based in large part, on her words.  Carter´s words were presented throughout the trial, mostly in the form of voluminous text messages presented by the prosecution. 

Yet it was a phone call that the judge ruled was the critical piece of evidence justifying his verdict.  “This court finds,” the judge said, “that instructing Mr. Roy to get back in the truck constituted wanton and reckless conduct.”[iii]  The judge found that “Carter's actions and failure to act where it was her self-created duty to Roy since she put him in that toxic environment constituted reckless conduct” and “ that the conduct caused the death of Mr. Roy."[iv]

Yet the relationship between the two teens was sustained in significant part through text messaging.  The prosecution presented evidence of pervasive electronic persuasion, which apparently occurred over time.  A selection of text messages published by CNN[v] includes the following messages between Carter and Roy on July 4th through 12th 2014:

Carter: "You're gonna have to prove me wrong because I just don't think you really want this. You just keeps pushing it off to another night and say you'll do it but you never do"

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Carter: "SEE THAT'S WHAT I MEAN. YOU KEEP PUSHING IT OFF! You just said you were gonna do it tonight and now you're saying eventually. . . ."

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Carter: "But I bet you're gonna be like 'oh, it didn't work because I didn't tape the tube right or something like that' . . . I bet you're gonna say an excuse like that"

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Legal merits aside, what is troubling to so many people who followed this case was the idea that a teenage girl could wield such influence over her boyfriend through text messaging.  This is critically important given that texting is increasingly the communication method of choice for young people.

Why Talk When You Can Text?

Young people would rather text than talk.  Pew Research indicates that 58% of teenagers with smartphones cite texting as their preferred method of communication with their closest friends.[vi]

A 2015 study by Blair et al. indicates that adolescents find texting easier than picking up the phone, even while acknowledging it is not always more convenient or even faster.[vii]  They note that adolescent decision-making is highly reward-motivated, and texting provides immediate satisfaction, where calling does not.  Specifically, they note texting bypasses phone ringing delay, socially obligatory preliminary small talk, and the time it would take to leave a voice mail, allowing young people to communicate instantly whenever they get the urge.

More recent research by Annisette and Lafreniera (2017) studied the shallowing hypothesis, which suggests that technology such as texting causes a decline in reflective thought (analyzing and making judgments) and promotes rapid shallow thought that when used too frequently, can create moral and cognitive “shallowness.”[viii] Their results were consistent with the hypothesis, finding frequent texters were less likely to engage in reflective thought, and viewed moral life goals as less important.

When it comes to sharing feelings, many people prefer texting over talking in person.  And people are more likely to express feelings with honesty while texting than in person.[ix] 

Of significant importance to young people, texting may impact self-esteem.  A 2014 study by Amy Gonzalez found that text based communication has a stronger impact on self-esteem than face-to-face communication.[x]  She noted that her research was consistent with the Internet enhanced self-disclosure hypothesis, which ties psychological benefits of text-based communication to enhanced self-disclosure.

Safe Cyber Communication

Electronic communication such as texting is a convenient way to supplement healthy, offline relationships.  Danger can arise, however, when enhanced online self-disclosure creates vulnerability that is exploited by a texting partner advocating a harmful solution to a disclosed problem.

Because knowledge is power, understanding the power of virtual interaction as well as its risks and rewards, can enhance our ability to recognize and disrupt unhealthy communication patterns sooner rather than later. 

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert.  She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House). 

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment.  She is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own. 

Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD

References

References

[i] https://nobullying.com/six-unforgettable-cyber-bullying-cases/

[ii] Diane Felmlee, and Robert Faris. "Toxic Ties: Networks of Friendship, Dating, and Cyber Victimization," Social Psychology Quarterly 79, no. 3 (2016): 243-262.

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/suicide-texting-trial-michelle-carter-conrad-roy.html

[iv] http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/08/us/text-message-suicide-michelle-carter-conrad-roy/index.html

[v] http://www.cnn.com/2017/06/08/us/text-message-suicide-michelle-carter-conrad-roy/index.html

[vi] http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/08/06/teens-technology-and-friendships/

[vii] Bethany L. Blair, Anne C. Fletcher, and Erin R. Gaskin, ”Cell Phone Decision Making: Adolescents´ Perceptions of How and Why They Make the Choice to Text or Call,” Youth & Society 47, no. 3 (2015): 395-411.

[viii] Logan E. Annisette and Kathryn D. Lafreniere, ”Social media, texting, and personality: A test of the shallowing hypothesis,” Personality and Individual Differences 115 (2017): 154-158.

[ix] Jennifer M. Crosswhite, Denise Rice, and Sylvia M. Asay, ”Texting among United States young adults: An exploratory study on texting and its use within families,” The Social Science Journal 51 (2014): 70-78 (75)

[x] Amy Gonzales, "Text-based Communication Influences Self-esteem More Than Face-to-face or Cellphone Communication." Computers in Human Behavior 39 (2014): 197-203.