Izabel Laxamana: A global frenzy of rumor

On the Internet, unsubstantiated neighborhood rumors can turn into global certainties within hours. The case of a Tacoma schoolgirl’s suicide is a sad illustration.

On May 29, 13-year-old Izabel Laxamana jumped from the South 48th Street overpass onto Interstate 5, sustaining fatal injuries. The News Tribune has given skimpy accounts of the suicide, in part because the verified facts have been skimpy. The other part is that this newspaper generally avoids publicizing suicides.

The scarcity of facts hasn’t stopped social media and some news organizations from repeating rumors and speculation as if they were proven truths. The most inflammatory rumor is that Izabel’s father effectively caused her suicide by posting a video of him cutting her hair for some unspecified offense. This claim has literally gone around the world. The vigilante jurors of the Web have called for his imprisonment or – better yet – death and eternal damnation.

Other rumors: She’d been humiliated by an announcement at school, or bullied by other students.

Her father may have cut her hair, as evidenced by the video. Everything else – that he posted the video, that she was shamed at school, that she committed suicide over the above – is dubious hearsay. In fact, a police investigation has found that Izabel wrote suicide notes shortly before she died in which she explicity blamed only herself for doing embarrassing things. She was reportedly using social media against her parents’ wishes.

People leap to conclusions, especially when the story is sensational and the details are few. The fact that Event A happened before Event B doesn’t mean that Event A caused Event B. The sun doesn’t come up in the morning because the rooster crows at dawn.

The Internet furor over Izabel’s death is forcing unsparing public scrutiny of the actions that preceded her death. The picture emerging is of a sensitive girl responding to Internet embarrassment with a rash and tragic act. Suicidal decisions tend to be complex. They are rarely explained by a single distressing event.

Ordinarily, the dead girl’s dignity would be honored and her family would be left to grieve without harassment. In this case, rumors amplified by irresponsible websites have made that impossible.

The Internet has allowed onlookers to pry into others’ lives and malign their character to a degree unimaginable until recent years. When outrage goes viral, people who’ve posted annoying photos or made ill-considered comments on Twitter can have their careers and reputations destroyed. Petty offenses are being punished with nuclear bombs.

Ironically, the people most indignant about Izabel’s suicide are condemning public shaming, apparently not comprehending that they themselves have been whipping up a shame storm.

Izabel’s death is sorrow enough. The tragedy shouldn’t have been compounded by turning it into a frenzy of hearsay and gossip repeated as fact.