"It was a suicide. I find it incredible that this is even in question," said the spokesperson for Consensus, Ltd.
"I find it incredible likewise, but from quite the opposite position," replied the Minister of Justice, "that being why it is in question, Ms. Sharpe. Please elaborate on why you believe the Prime Minister's death was not an assassination."
"Everyone should have a copy of the - good. As you can all see, the usage patterns show a substantial fraction of the Consensus participants advising Prime Minister Pham to kill herself. We don't deny this. But it's within the parameters of ordinary operation of the product, to which Dr. Pham voluntarily subscribed. Participants can advise subscribers to do anything they like. I myself have been advised through my own - admittedly lower-profile - Consensus feed to walk in front of a bus, to donate all of my money to the United Environment Initiative, to attempt to seduce actor/author Thomas R-"
"Thank you, Ms. Sharpe," said the Third Undersecretary of State, "but that is not quite the sticking point. Move along."
Sharpe recovered momentum and proceeded. "Apart from a large number of people suggesting it, there was no harmful interaction between our product and the late Dr. Pham. The delivery of suggestions from the participant base of Consensus is precisely what she signed up for. She was free to not sign up, free to turn off her feed if it disagreed with her, and free to ignore anything her feed said while it was running. She was not assaulted or battered. She was not even in the conventional sense driven to suicide. She was not, in a word, murdered."
"You understand, I hope," said the Minister of Justice, "that neither you nor the corporation you represent are being accused of committing this murder. That responsibility would lie with the instigators of the massed voting."
"Honored minister, I and Consensus resent the implication that our product provided even a murder weapon. Dr. Pham's cause of death was suicide by overdose."
"And yet somehow I wouldn't expect the pharmaceutical manufacturer to send such a vigorous defender," said the Minister of Justice.
"I'm sure you can appreciate the magnitude of the difference between Consensus and a company that makes painkillers, honored minister. Our product depends heavily on subscriber understanding of the intended uses, and if people think that if they pick up a feed they will be murdered as though with no chance for their own desire for self-preservation to intervene -"
"Your marketing problems are beside the point, Ms. Sharpe," said the First Secretary of State. "Honored ministers, distinguished secretaries, I move that we dismiss Ms. Sharpe. Allowing Consensus a platform was a mistake to begin with. I want to hear from the so-called community leaders."
There were murmurs; the council took a vote; Ms. Sharpe, disgruntled, was ushered aside and others took her place.
"The council acknowledges Mr. Clark and Mx. Renault," said the Second Undersecretary of State.
"And," said the Minister of Justice, "invites them to explain themselves."
Clark and Renault looked at each other. It was unclear whether they both wanted to speak first or both wanted the other to take over; regardless, eventually Renault spoke. "In the event," they said, "that the council determines that the Prime Minister was killed, the question of whether she was murdered per se is separate. We maintain that at no time did we or any of the other individuals acting under the banner of Free Thriving Tomorrow intend that Dr. Pham actually go so far as to harm herself. At worst the charge would be manslaughter, and we are prepared to contest even that."
"Gentlemen," said the Minister of Justice. The Second Undersecretary of State coughed. "...Gentlepersons," amended the Minister of Justice unsmoothly, "were you unaware of Prime Minister Pham's habits with regard to her Consensus feed?"
"We hadn't examined statistics," said Clark. "We didn't know how rigidly she - anyway, she had never tried to kill herself before, so we couldn't have known that she'd do that."
"The suggestion that she commit suicide had not previously attracted fifty percent of participants, let alone eighty-eight," said the Third Undersecretary of State.
"But we were not the first to suggest it," said Clark. "Only the best coordinated."
"Perhaps you would like to tell us why you coordinated to tell Prime Minister Pham to kill herself," suggested the Minister of Justice.
"It was a protest against the pardons she issued for the usury case last New Year's," said Renault. "We felt they were inappropriate and unresponsive to the magnitude of the harm caused by the perpetrators' predatory behavior against struggling families."
"It was symbolic," added Clark. "The victims of the usurers were harassed by the lenders night and day and led to believe that if they could not pay they were valueless. Pham spent a short period of time being told that she was not valued if she could not produce justice for those victims. Several of whom were themselves driven to suicide, which is why we went with that instead of the alternative proposal of demanding that she repay the victims' debts out of pocket."
"Suggesting," called Sharpe from the side of the chamber. "Not demanding."
"That will be all, Ms. Sharpe," said the Third Undersecretary of State.
"Are there," said the Minister of Justice, "further questions for Clark and Renault?"
There were, but only a few verifications about when and how they'd rallied their supporters to converge on the Prime Minister's Consensus feed all at once. They were shooed to the side as well.
The next person brought forward to speak was Pham's psychologist. She was in favor of calling it murder or at least manslaughter and seemed to have been coached, or at least rehearsed. "There is no way to overstate the mental burden of believing that most of one's society would prefer that one was dead," she said.
"So you think that Free Thriving Tomorrow was, in effect, armed and dangerous," said the Second Secretary of State.
"Yes. To deliberately inflict this mob of detractors on someone is the worst form of cruelty and gaslighting," said the psychologist. "To do it to someone who has devoted her entire adult life to serving the will of the people is willful violence. It's possible that under slightly better conditions she could have survived, but in what would in a conventional assault case be called the 'eggshell skull rule', the perpetrators must be held responsible for harm that resulted from their attempt to cause harm, not what would have resulted if she had been having a better day."
"Thank you," said the Minister of Justice. "Do you have anything else to add?"
The psychologist was out of index cards. "Er, no."
"The council will deliberate in private now," said the First Secretary of State. "Peripheral attendees, please wait outside."
Sharpe didn't have to be told twice. She went out to sit in one of the chairs in the hallway and pulled out her phone. Yep - all the elected officials in the room and two of the appointees - not, unfortunately, the Minister of Justice, but one of his assistants - were looking at their feeds. Their feeds were already thoroughly in favor of calling it a suicide. Nobody in the room with a feed had less than a 70% track record of acquiescing to strong feed suggestions.
Sharpe put her phone away.
An hour later, the deliberations were over. Sharpe (and Clark and Renault and other peripherals) were allowed in to hear the Minister of Justice render the verdict, which obviously didn't please him one bit.
Clark and Renault: formally reprimanded, but not charged; but their organization was going to be investigated for possible obligatory dissolution on a moderately obscure hate speech charge.
Sharpe: not even reprimanded. Consensus, Ltd.: not even a murder weapon.
Sharpe and the Minister of Justice turned out to be parked next to each other outside.
"I want you to know that I still think your product is vicious," the Minister told her.
"Our product puts constituent opinion in the hands of people who want and need it," says Sharpe. "You might as well say a career in politics is inherently vicious."
"I might," said the Minister of Justice.
"I think you'd like Consensus if you tried it. And you'd see that you can ignore it whenever you like," said Sharpe. "You don't even need to tell the application all of the options you have under consideration. Have you ever looked at - not even the feed, the preferences settings?"
"Here, let me show you. This is mine, here -" Sharpe walked him through the filters and the inputs and the style options and the spam catcher. "If all you want to see is opinions on whether you should have toast or eggs for breakfast, you can do that. Not that this would make participating in your feed very popular, so you might not get a good picture of the population you're serving, but you could still do it."
"You're trying to say Pham used it wrong?"
"I never advised her on how to set hers up, honored minister, but she certainly wasn't taking advantage of some built-in precautions that would have - kept some of the hostility at bay. Look, can I get you a free one-year trial? No hard feelings."
Sharpe eventually got him to download the app. She helped him set it up. She made careful note of his ID number. She made very sure that he knew how to open up his settings if he wanted; she sent him to some instructions on how to make one's feed popular enough to get statistical meaning out of it.
She watched him drive away.
She navigated to his profile, brand-new, unused for now, and bookmarked it.
Just in case.