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Fabiane Maria de Jesus, a mother of two, died at the hands of a lynch mob driven by a series of vicious online rumors. Investigations of the events that led to her death suggest that while potent, the rumors were mostly false.
Saturday, May 3, Fabiane was returning home in the Morrinhos neighborhood of outer Guaruja, a city on the southern coast of Brazil. The 33-year-old housewife, mother of two daughters — one twelve years old, the other just a baby — suffered from bipolar disorder, but was able to manage the illness with medical treatment. While on her way back to her church, where she'd left behind her bible after the morning's service, a group of roughly one hundred people attacked her. Her hands bound together with a piece of wire, for the next two hours she was beaten and dragged through the streets. Rescued by police, two days after the attack, Fabiane died.
Driving the collective rage was a rumor about the existence of a woman who was allegedly kidnapping children in the region to use them in witchery rituals. Alerts about the woman had been published on the Facebook page Guarujá Alerta (Guaruja Alert) – a profile that publishes services and news related to the police sector. Just days before the attack, the page, which has more than 24,000 followers, featured a police sketch of the assumed kidnapper.
Yet the same Facebook page had also reported that local police had no registers of children who went missing or kidnapped. But it was already too late. The tale of the child kidnapper was already circulating online and had led to a hunt through the city. The police sketch disseminated by the Facebook profile was made by Rio de Janeiro's police back in 2012, during the investigation of a case about a woman who tried to steal a baby from its mother. A month before Fabiane was killed, the same sketch appeared in Recife, Pernambuco, related to the suspect of another child kidnapping case. Like the rest of her family, Fabiane was born and lived in Morrinhos for her entire life. Anyone looking at the facts could see that she was targeted in error. But this was not enough to stop her death, another in a series of lynchings that have taken place in the country since the beginning of the year, as reported by Global Voices.
“It's nobody’s fault! It's the Internet’s fault!”
With the help of videos recorded during the lynching, police managed to identify six suspects in the incident. According to A Tarde newspaper, a group of friends of one of the suspects united to protest across the police department, yelled:
Quer prender todo mundo? A culpa é de todo mundo! A culpa é de ninguém! A culpa é da internet!
Do you want to arrest everybody? It’s everybody’s fault! It’s nobody’s fault! It’s the internet’s fault!
Online, users criticized the Facebook profile that posted the erroneous reports. Users accused the page’s administrators of being “as guilty as those who had beaten and killed her” and having “their hands dirty with blood.” The person responsible for Guaruja Alerta deposed for the police and said he was available to offer anything necessary to help with the investigations, but he also claimed “not having any responsibility” in the episode. Neverthless, as written by Luiz Francisco Carvalho in an article about Fabiane’s murder:
O caso do Guarujá mostra que a internet potencializa a reação histérica de massas. A repulsa eventual e a punição de um ou outro envolvido não são capazes de conter a epidemia.
Guaruja’s case shows that the internet potentializes the hysterical reaction of the masses. The eventual repulse and punishment of one or other individual involved are not capable of stopping the epidemic.
The impact of traditional media reporting on such incidents has been a hot topic for discussion in recent months. As Marcelo Freixo, state deputy from Rio de Janeiro, wrote in his Facebook:
Maior é a responsabilidade daqueles que usam seus espaços privilegiados de fala, como programas de TV, para incentivar e, em certa medida, legitimar esses atos bárbaros. Foi o que ocorreu quando moradores do Flamengo agrediram e prenderam um adolescente negro a um poste, em fevereiro deste ano.
Greater is the responsibility of those who use their privileged space of speech, as TV shows, to encourage and, in a certain measure, to legitimate these barbarian acts. That is what happened when residents from Flamengo (neighborhood) pummeled and tied an afro-descendant teenager to a pole, in February of this year.
In February, Rachel Sheherazade, a newscast anchor, was notified by the Public Ministry, for saying on national television that the justice acts performed with one’s own hands were “understandable” – referring to the case of a minor tied up to a street pole [en] in Rio, last February. For the professor of Communications at the University of São Paulo (USP), Eugênio Bucci:
A imprensa é uma instituição que busca não difundir, mas investigar os boatos, a partir de uma postura crítica. A imprensa, sim, pode e deve ser cobrada quando desobedece a esse imperativo. As redes sociais não têm esse compromisso. É claro que o aprendizado social com o uso das novas tecnologias imprimirá às redes uma série de novos cuidados. Elas tenderão a ser passíveis de responsabilizações, e tenderão a ter de observar parâmetros que talvez as aproximem um pouco da ética da imprensa, mas ainda estamos muito longe disso. Ainda vivemos um tempo em que muita gente toma por verdade comprovada qualquer tolice que apareça numa tela eletrônica. Mais ainda: no Brasil, vivemos um tempo em que as pessoas premidas por demandas mais dramáticas estão deixando de acreditar nas instituições, na justiça, no bem comum, no poder público. O ódio e a pressa, juntos, produzem o caos.
The press is an institution that seeks not to publicize, but to investigate the rumors from a critical posture. The press, yes, may and should be charged when disobeys this imperative. The social networks do not have this commitment. It is obvious that the social learning with the usage of new technologies will print into the web a series of cautions. They will have a tendency to be passive of responsibilities, and will tend to have to watch parameters that maybe put them closer to press’ ethics, but we are still far from that. We are still living an age when many people take for granted any non-sense appearing in an electronic screen. More than that: in Brazil, we live in an age when people pressed by the most dramatic demands do no longer trust the institutions, justice, common welfare, the public power. The hate and the hurry, together, can produce chaos.
Beyond the rage
Fabiane was innocent of a crime that may never have been committed, but, as asked by the newspaper El Pais: “what if she was guilty?” Would the barbaric way in which she was killed still shock the country? A week after Fabiane’s death, a 26-year-old beautician was tortured and murdered by a group of men, also in Sao Paulo. Early accounts suggested that the attack was triggered by the victim allegedly having stolen a pack of cookies. Later, one of the suspects said she had stolen 27 thousand reais –- around US $12,000 -– from his house. Deaths by lynching in the typically impoverished outskirts of urban areas in Brazil are leading to a series of reflections about the country’s actual portrait. To the researcher Ariadne Natal, from the Nucleus of Violence Studies, from the University of Sao Paulo:
não é qualquer pessoa que pode ser desumanizada e, portanto, linchada. As potenciais vítimas de linchamento carregam consigo a marca daquele que pode, em última análise, ser eliminado.
not any person can be dehumanized and, therefore, lynched. The potential lynching victims carry with them the stigma of those who can, ultimately, be eliminated.
This indicates that a certain social class is uniquely vulnerable to the problem. Within the middle class, who also commit crimes, there is “a more efficient system of protection,” Natal points out. While the whole country tries to make some sense of these tragedies, the failure of democratic structures is also behind such actions. Ariadne notes:
Numa democracia, o que se espera é que as pessoas se mobilizem para melhorar as instituições e não para fazer justiça de forma sumária, sem dar aos suspeitos o direito à defesa. E, com isso, no afã de tentar fazer uma suposta justiça, comete-se grandes injustiças. E mesmo que a vítima tenha de fato cometido algum crime, isso não diminui o aspecto lamentável de um linchamento.
In a democracy, what one expects is that people mobilize to make the institutions better and not to make justice in a summary way, without given the suspects the right to defense. And, with that, willing of trying to do a supposed justice, one commits great injustices. And even if the victim has indeed committed some kind of crime, this does not diminish the lamentable aspect of a lynching.