[OPINION] Hashtags, trending topics, and the death of Michelle Silvertino

[OPINION] Hashtags, trending topics, and the death of Michelle Silvertino
'What was it like to wait 5 days for a bus? What happened in between? What was she thinking? How did she feel?'


Every day, I check the trending topics on that blue bird app. I don’t have an account to interact with and follow specific people; I just check out the trending topics of that day, of that hour. I know, I know, it is not the most reliable source of news and information, and is an arena for paid trolls, but I just want the gist of what people are talking about and what’s happening in real time. You see, if there’s an earthquake, fire, heavy rains, or floods, people are most likely to post about it in seconds, like a reflex.

Consistent on the trend list are K-pop fans, talking about their favorite artists, spamming to clear up searches for them, and other fandom things. These fans have a strong presence on this social media platform. Also on the list of most talked about or most bashed about are actors, actresses, vloggers, social media influencers, and of course, politicians. 

One morning, as usual, I checked the trends and saw an unfamiliar name in hashtag form: #JusticeForMichelleSilvertino.

Michelle Silvertino, female, 33 years old, stranded on the streets, who died waiting for a bus to get back home and be with her children.

My mind did not seem to comprehend. Somebody died from waiting for 5 days for a bus? Why? I frantically clicked other related news about it. But she did die out of waiting.

Still confused about what to do with this information, I stared blankly at the ceiling. She was 33. I am now 33. She had left 4 kids, the eldest at 11 years old. I also lost my mom when I was 11. It was as if the numbers were telling me that I could be like that person now and die too, or were trying to bring back my feelings of when I was a bereaved child, disarrayed by the concept of death. It just brought back the 11-year old kid in me. Confused, angry, frustrated, but helpless.

There was no clear information about her death. It just said that she had an existing lung problem, difficulty breathing, and a fever when rushed to the hospital. In the end, she was considered a probable case of COVID-19. Another number added to the thousands of people. Her real story, we will never know.

What was it like to wait 5 days for a bus? What happened in between? What was she thinking? How did she feel? We will never know because subjective things like that are not measurable, and do not trigger a strong call for action, policy-wise.

Let’s spin the wheel of blame. Will it be the local government unit? The national government? The Department of Transport? The staff of the Department of Health? Or is it the victims’ fault? Well, let’s just blame it all on the pandemic.

So where’s the justice in this? In reality, there is a whole population that needs help. Everybody needs help, but there is an order to receive that help. There is a system that assesses and categorizes people to justify and prioritize who needs help first. And of course, there is a limit to the help being distributed. There are limited resources available and a tolerance towards theft. It is admittedly also difficult to find and locate one person out of the population to send precise help. Every day we hear stories of suffering; it seems to never end. Some stories are isolated, some follow consistent trends. Some just punch straight to the heart. And some are never listened to. (READ: DSWD cash aid comes after Michelle Silvertino dies)

Trending topics, more often than not, are developed through opinions, rants, and frustrations by a significant number of people collectively mentioning a keyword. But just how powerful is that digital voice? How can it change the country and give us “hashtag” justice? I hear some say, “Hanggang hashtag na lang ba tayo?” Given the tainted reputation of social media, will people in positions of power take these trending topics seriously and let them prompt change?

The same day, that afternoon, Michelle’s hashtag had dropped out of the trending topics list.

Where were the angry people calling for justice now? Some still talk about her, but they are relatively too few to get her back on the trend list. K-pop fans are back at it again. Bashers are back out there talking about some celebrity’s statement. Trolls are back out there earning money as you click and argue with them. The day goes on.

After you read this, whisper a simple prayer for Michelle and her family. May she rest in peace. – Rappler.com

Clarice Sarao is a public health worker. She has social anxiety but tries to be socially aware. She wrote this in an attempt to be audacious, but kept writing in the passive voice.