Oh, for the time when trash talking was just that — running your mouth for a select group, venting without any intent to act.
Those days are no more. Technology has amplified our voices, allowed our messages to reach wider and farther, and that’s not always a bad thing. Think of the charities that have raised money, the political crusaders who have picked up followers, the artists who have grown their audiences.
But there’s another side. People who overshare on Twitter. People who post inappropriate comments that, without body language and social cues to accompany them, fall horribly flat on Facebook.
The most recent case drawing attention to the nebulous — and prickly — world of social media communication involves a Texas teenager who has been in custody for about five months, ever since he posted what his lawyer labels “banter” but authorities consider a threat.
Justin Carter, 18 at the time, was reacting to another Facebook comment about a video game when he allegedly typed: “I’m [expletive] in the head alright. I’m a shoot up a kindergarten/ And watch the blood of the innocent rain down/ And eat the beating heart of one of them.” He reportedly also wrote “lol” and “jk” – shorthand for laughing out loud and just kidding.
But this post appeared two months after the Dec. 14 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, so it was quickly routed to a regional intelligence center and Carter was immediately arrested and charged with a third-degree felony for making a “terroristic threat.” Carter eventually wrote a jailhouse letter to a judge admitting that what he wrote was ‘terrible, mean and downright stupid…I wasn’t trying to scare anyone,” but he remains locked up because his family can’t afford the $500,000 bond. A July 16 court date has been set in the case.
Meanness and stupidity, of course, are precisely this young man’s problems. In another time, his bad phrasing and poor grammar might have been quickly forgotten, relegated to the questionable behavior we are content to keep an eye on. But social media offers no boundaries between private and public lives. When we make fools of ourselves, we do it forever and before many. What’s more, because we live in an overly anxious world where our worst fears and those we never imagined have come true, the wrong comment or a cringe-inducing admission can be regarded as a potential crime tip.
In this case, we seem to have over-reacted, blown out of proportion a sarcastic comment, tossing out good judgment and careful assessment in the pursuit of safety.
According to Donald Flanary, a defense attorney who took the case on a pro bono basis, Carter’s words have been taken out of context. Having his bail set at an exorbitant amount — about five times higher than some murder cases — adds to the injustice. Supporters have started an online petition on change.org and appeared on national media outlets.
Carter isn’t the first, and sadly, he won’t be the last teenager to get in trouble for a Facebook posting. Earlier this year, a Massachusetts 18-year-old was arrested for referring to a bombing and murder on his page. A grand jury later determined the words were part of a rap lyric he was penning and not a real threat.
Since he’s been in jail, Carter has suffered concussions, black eyes and been moved four times for his safety — a cautionary tale that should prompt everybody to think, really think, before they apply fingers to keys.
Follow Ana on Twitter @AnaVeciana.