Paulo Victor Ribeiro writes about the disturbing trend in young people livestreaming taking their own lives and about the response by the streaming service Tik-Tok to the suicide of a 19-year old vlogger named João (a pseudonym) who livestreamed his suicide on that platform that was watched by 280 people. After being informed, the company focused its time and energy on the best public relations strategy to deal with this tragedy before taking action, spending three hours on it before informing the police.
JOÃO FILMED THE last livestream of his life on a summer afternoon a year ago. He was 19 and living in Curitiba, the capital of the state of Paraná in southern Brazil. The day before, João issued an ominous warning to his fans that he had been planning a special performance.
Their eyes glued to the screens of their cellphones, some 280 people watched the young vlogger kill himself live on TikTok, last year’s fourth-most downloaded app in the world. It was 3:23 p.m. on February 21, 2019. The video, with 497 comments and 15 complaints, remained live for more than an hour and a half, simply showing João’s body.
Instead of alerting authorities immediately, the company prepared a press statement — that it never released of its own volition — taking no responsibility for failures of the moderation mechanisms that left the livestream online for more than an hour. Officials inside TikTok issued internal orders to ensure that the story did not go “viral” and said its local office should monitor TikTok and other social media platforms to see if the story surfaced publicly.
This is not the first time that people have shown their own deaths on the internet and companies like Facebook and Twitter have taken steps in association with groups like the National Suicie Prevention Lifeline to deal with such sensitive content because seeing such a thing can be traumatic, and particularly dangerous for people in a vulnerable situation.
Suicide is the second-largest cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and in Brazil, the number of young people who die by suicide is only increasing. The World Health Organization warns that, due to the risk of copycat syndrome, the issue should be treated with increased caution, especially among young and depressed populations. It’s not hard to imagine the impact a livestreamed suicide that aired for over an hour may have had on those who watched it.
When João alerted his fans that he would be giving a ‘special performance’ the next day, it is not clear that this was what he had in mind, unless there is more to his announcement than what has been reported. So I am not sure what the reaction was from his fans when the horror of what they were seeing began to unfold.