When People Live-Stream Murder and Suicide, Who Watches?
As the popularity of live-streaming services like Periscope and Facebook Live grows, users have taken to these platforms to broadcast self-harm and acts of violence. Hundreds witness these tragedies in real time, but very few intervene.
Illustrations by Shawna X
In 2008 a 19-year-old college student named Abraham Biggs logged on to the now-defunct live-streaming platform Justin.tv and took a lethal overdose of opiates and benzodiazepines. Twelve hours later, someone watching the broadcast, which was still running as user comments filtered in, identified Biggs's location and called the police, who can be seen entering Biggs's room before the video ends.
The advent of live-streaming video services such as Facebook Live and Periscope has enabled people around the world to share and consume the daily lives of strangers even more easily than before. But just as life is streamed into your computer screen, so too have death and violence passed through that portal. Since the technology's inception, people have raped, murdered, and committed suicide on live streams. This May, a 19-year-old French girl turned on Periscope before throwing herself in front of a train outside of Paris. In an even grimmer twist, some of these broadcasts (particularly suicides) have elicited onlooker apathy; users access the streams but often do nothing to help—or worse, they encourage the violence.
Biggs's suicide is one of shockingly numerous examples of how live-streaming technology can be used to broadcast human suffering. His story captured national attention because it was live-streamed, a relative (but not unheard of) peculiarity at the time, but there was another aspect of his case that disturbed his surviving family and the press: Many of the people anonymously observing Biggs during the final hours of his life told him to keep going. Wendy Crane, an investigator from the Broward County Medical Examiner's Office (BCMEO), told ABC News at the time, "People were egging him on and saying things like 'go ahead and do it, faggot.'" A representative from the BCMEO told Broadly that Crane cannot comment on this case today.
Eight years later, incidents like this—as well as murders, assaults, and other violent acts—seem to be occurring more frequently, inciting a flurry of media coverage and prompting the providers of streaming services to amp up protections. In April, an 18-year-old woman named Marina Lonina was charged with kidnapping, rape, sexual battery, and pandering sexual matter involving a minor after streaming 29-year-old Raymond Boyd Gates sexually assault her 17-year-old friend live on the Periscope app. According to the New York Times, these charges were "almost as severe" as those facing Gates himself. The prosecutor described the footage: "For the most part she is just streaming it on the Periscope app and giggling and laughing," he said. (Periscope did not return Broadly's request for comment.)
But judging from the stories that have circulated in recent years, live-streamed suicides seem to attract onlooker apathy the most. In 2007, 42-year-old Kevin Whitrick hanged himself on camera to an audience of around 60 viewers, some of whom encouraged him, the BBC reported. A 24-year-old Japanese man hanged himself on a service called Ustream in 2010, and according to CNN he was also "egged on" by online viewers.
Known by the username "CandyJunkie," Biggs was a regular visitor to the "Miscellaneous" (Misc.) forum of the bodybuilding.com message boards, where he had posted about his suicidal impulses and "troubles and doubts" before he died. While the site's forum manager told Broadly that bodybuilding.com has no comment for this story, Misc. users have posted regularly about Biggs in the years since his death. "I told people i saw it and they asked why i didn't do anything," user SDFlip wrote in December 2008. "What was i gonna do?" SDFlip said he was located in England at the time. "Watching him on cam that night, when the cops came in my heart stopped," wrote another user three years later. "Was the MOST fuked [sic] up thing I've ever seen."
I hope you have this in the back of your head for a very long time. Someone who was very sick killed themselves after reading your comments.
Dr. Becky Lois specializes in suicide prevention and is an attending psychologist on the behavioral consultation team at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center. In an interview with Broadly, Lois explained that anyone who comes into virtual contact with suicidal behavior has a responsibility to help the person at risk. "You have to take these kinds of things seriously, even if you believe that the person is doing this for dramatic effect, or doesn't really mean it, or is just communicating distress but doesn't really want to end their life," she said.
A year before he died, the New York Times reported, Biggs posted that the bodybuilding.com users had "become like a family" to him, but Lois says it is a mistake to assume that the people you're connecting with online care about you or have an "'appropriate' connection to you."
"There tends to be an over-reliance on those relationships in a way that could be harmful," she told me. "You don't know these people."
Many users on bodybuilding.com said they didn't think Biggs, who suffered from depression and was being treated for bipolar disorder when he died, was serious because he had made similar suicidal posts before but had not followed through. According to a screengrab posted by the user socalsocal, a moderator of the forum was alerted to Biggs's live stream and his suicide threat by a Misc. forum user, who requested the moderator trace his IP address and alert the police. The moderator responded: "He's an attention whore. You should see all the threads he starts, then deletes." That lack of compassion is echoed by many users on Misc., who seem to believe that Biggs should not have been taken seriously because he had cried out for help before.
Psychologically speaking, those opinions are wrong. The American Association of Suicidology considers talk of suicide a sign of "acute risk"; the National Institute of Mental Health lists "threatening to hurt or kill oneself or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself" as its first warning sign of suicide. Lois says that anyone who talks about killing themselves is at a "very high" level of risk. "We need to take those type of comments very seriously and make sure that person gets help," she said.
Other Misc. users have logged on and condemned the people who harassed Biggs. "They should feel guilty for egging on a mentally unstable individual who was obviously severely distressed at the time," user swoleplaya wrote after the incident in 2008. "I hope you have this in the back of your head for a very long time. Someone who was very sick killed themselves after reading your comments."
While we would like to believe that humans are generally compassionate social beings, group apathy toward individual suffering is a well-documented phenomenon. When a young woman named Kitty Genovese was stalked, brutally stabbed, and murdered outside of her apartment building in New York City in 1964, the New York Times reported that 37 or 38 "respectable, law-abiding citizens" witnessed the horrific incident. As she screamed for her life—"he stabbed me"—windows of a neighboring building opened, the Times reported. Faceless witnesses stood behind them, watching the attack. One man did call out from above, which temporarily stopped the murderer. But then those windows closed and the killer returned to stab Genovese again. She screamed, "I'm dying," over and over to a silent audience. Her killer came and went as she struggled, screamed, and tried to find safety. Eventually he raped and killed her.
Or at least that's the story that has so captivated and horrified the public. In the years since Genovese was killed, the popular narrative about her murder has been questioned. When the murderer, Winston Moseley, died in prison in March of this year, the Times reported on its own inaccuracies, which were mirrored throughout the press of the day: "The article [reporting on the murder of Kitty Genovese] grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety." Few of those who "glimpsed" the attack realized the nature of Genovese's screams, the Times noted—many said they believed it had been lovers or drunks fighting.
Nevertheless, the story told about her death had a massive cultural impact. Five years after Genovese was killed, researchers defined "bystander apathy," a psychosocial phenomenon in which people are less likely to help someone in need if there are other people present. Dr. Vincent Hendricks is a professor of media, cognition, and communication at the University of Copenhagen who has studied the way that the bystander effect has taken shape in the 21st century. In an interview with Broadly, Hendricks explained that the internet makes it possible for people to assume anonymity and express opinions without effort or personal consequence—which sadly makes the world wide web an excellent setting for bystander apathy to develop.
I told people I saw it and they asked why I didn't do anything.
It has to do with the way that social norms are established within different environments, he says. While "individual comments or likes are insignificant," as those accumulate they collectively produce the values and behaviors that the group then adheres to. These can include the passive click of a "like" on a live stream in which someone is saying they want to die, or silence, or "encouraging individuals to proceed with their destructive self-act," Hendricks said. It can become normal to doubt, mock, criticize, or encourage the unwell person on screen. In 2003, 21-year-old Brandon Vedas overdosed on several different types of drugs on his webcam. Although he had outlined his plan to ingest a large quantity of anti-depressants and alcohol, he had also instructed other members of his chat room to call his cell phone if he began to look like he was "dying." Instead, users told Vedas to "eat more" and said they wanted to see if he would "survive or just black out." Vedas's last message before his death early in the morning on January 12, 2003, read, "I told u I was hardcore." He has since become a disturbing meme.
The anonymity of the internet exacerbates these effects, Hendricks explained. It's similar to opening a window in the middle of the night to observe someone dying on the street below—but is even further removed, because your window into another's tragedy is not unlike the screen on which you watch violent fictional movies or television shows, and it's very far away from the reality of what is happening. "Watching [without acting] comes at almost no cost and quickly becomes the unfortunate norm," Hendricks said.
But it isn't as if a person's entire value system is wiped clean by group behavior. You may find yourself passively observing violence in a group of people even if, as an individual, you object to the passive observation of violence: If you believe something is wrong, but think most other people in your group believe it's right, you're more likely to go along with it. In actuality, most of the people in the group might believe it's wrong, but it doesn't necessarily matter. "This collective state of affairs—collectively subscribing to a norm that you privately reject—is known in the literature as pluralistic ignorance," Hendricks explained. It is just part of human nature.
"Part of going online to do this may be not only communicating distress but also trying to get feedback," Lois told me. "Perhaps there's a process there where they're trying to see if anyone cares enough to stop or try to intervene."
Indeed, the "cry for help" is a common refrain in both amateur and professional psychology. In 2010 a Misc. user named paulx022 wrote of Biggs, "This poor kid obviously was messed up in his head and felt like he had nobody in the world and nobody cared about him and was probably wanting somebody out of the thousands who watched him die to care enough to call the cops."
After more than a decade of live-streamed suicides, many believe it should be the provider's responsibility to police harmful or violent behavior broadcast through these services. After his son's death, Biggs's father spoke with ABC News and aimed a critical finger at the services that enabled his son's self-harm. "There's a lot of garbage out there that should not be," he said. "Unfortunately, this was allowed to happen."
Justin.tv is gone now. If you go there, you'll find a post that pushes visitors toward a new venture: a gaming platform called Twitch. In 2008, Justin.tv released a statement on Biggs's death, which read in part: "We regret that this has occurred and want to respect the privacy of the broadcaster and his family during this time."
This poor kid was probably wanting somebody out of the thousands who watched him die to care enough to call the cops.
Lois believes that live-streaming platforms such as Periscope and Facebook Live have a responsibility to monitor content. "Technology is always further ahead than morality," she said, pointing out that the tragedy often has to occur before safeguards are implemented. Facebook just released new suicide prevention tools last week, and the social media company is reportedly working with French authorities after a man slaughtered a policeman and his wife on a Facebook Live stream in Paris.
When asked for comment on the issue of live-streamed suicide, rape, and murder, Facebook responded with the same statement they've given to other publications after such incidents have occurred:
We believe the vast majority of people are using Facebook Live to come together and share experiences in the moment with their friends and family. But if someone does violate our Community Standards while using Live, we want to interrupt these streams as quickly as possible when they're reported to us. So we've given people a way to report violations during a live broadcast. We do understand and recognize that there are unique challenges when it comes to content and safety for Live videos. It's a serious responsibility, we work hard to strike the right balance between enabling expression while providing a safe and respectful experience. We're deeply committed to improving the effectiveness of how we handle reports of live content that violates our Community Standards.
In 2010, Misc. user Illriginalized wrote that he'd recently heard about Biggs's suicide, and was embarrassed by the cold-heartedness of his fellow bodybuilding.com posters. Further, Illriginalized said that anyone who told Biggs he should kill himself ought to be criminally prosecuted. "Now when I see someone egging anyone in this forum to go kill themselves, I'll do whatever it takes to locate that member and call the proper authorities, preferably the FBI," he wrote.
Jeff Banglid is a detective in the cybercrime unit of the Toronto Police Service. In an interview with Broadly, Banglid said that it is a criminal offense in Canada "to persuade or abet somebody to commit the act [of suicide], as well as to counsel them to commit. So if anybody's encouraging these people to continue with what they're doing, they're criminally responsible for that action."
In the United States, the situation is a bit more complicated. According to the Patient Rights Council, 40 states have laws that prohibit, to varying degrees, assisting, encouraging, or providing the physical means for a person to commit suicide. In 2015, VICE reported on the suicide of Massachusetts 18-year-old Conrad Roy III, whose 17-year-old girlfriend Michelle Carter encouraged him to kill himself through hundreds of text messages. (Their relationship existed primarily through phone calls and texts.) According to a piece on the case in New York Magazine, Carter went over potential methods to induce carbon-monoxide poisoning and said things like, "When you get back from the beach you've gotta go do it. You're ready. You're determined. It's the best time to do it." Carter was subsequently indicted by a grand jury for involuntary manslaughter. In April 2016, MassLive reported that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is reviewing the charges against Carter.
There's no such thing as an accident without a crowd gathering and standing on tiptoes in order to see the person lying on the ground.
Currently, Massachusetts is one of the few states with no specific law on the books prohibiting assisting or encouraging suicide virtually. According to court documents acquired by MassLive, prosecutors outlined Carter's alleged in-depth involvement in Roy's suicide: "Carter played an instrumental role: she talked him out of his doubts point-by-point, assured him that his family would understand why he did it, researched logistics and reassured him that he was likely to succeed, and pushed him to stop procrastinating and get on with it, mocking his hesitation and threatening to get him help if he did not carry through with his plans." Still, the defense suggested that there was no basis for the charge against Carter because telling someone to kill themselves isn't illegal in Massachusetts. "Charging her with manslaughter was a transparent effort calculated to circumvent the fact that the legislature has not criminalized words that encourage suicide," the defense brief reads.
Elsewhere, there is a precedent for criminalizing online or virtual encouragement of suicide. VICE pointed to a male nurse in Minnesota named William F. Melchert-Dinkel, who assumed several female aliases in order to encourage suicidal people to hang themselves and live-stream the act. In 2011 he was convicted of assisting a suicide. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed that ruling in 2014, deeming Minnesota's law against encouraging suicide an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but he was tried again later that year and the law prohibiting assisting suicide was upheld.
The difficulties in preventing and dealing with active live-streamed violence create other problems. While Banglid hasn't yet been alerted to an active suicide live-stream, he has worked on cases where violence is occurring live online. Such cases need to be approached with exigency, Banglid explained. "It's the same as witnessing an offense right in front of you," he said, adding that live-streamed suicide attempts or violent crime can be more challenging to stop because "you're separated by an internet connection." Investigators trace an IP address when possible, and look closely for identifying details onscreen that may tip them off to the location of the feed. Banglid explained that his cybercrime team works with social media platforms on an almost daily basis. "We've had situations just as recently as this weekend where we've actually prevented a suicide from occurring based on the cooperation of private companies," he said.
The cybercrimes unit where Banglid is employed has only existed since 2014, meaning that law enforcement is already far behind; the internet has been around much longer. Though sinister online activity is often associated with the "dark web," Banglid says that most of their work "is driven towards what the public would normally see." It's too early to say whether or not the live-streaming of suicide or violent crime is a trend, but the apparent rise in these cases is alarming to Banglid. "Such acts of violence and things of that nature just don't need to bear witness," he said.
Yet those who turn on their webcams during the darkest, most desperate moments of their lives must feel a need for someone to bear witness to them. "Suicide is always an interpersonal act," said Dr. Henry Seiden, a clinical psychologist who specializes in suicide and the devastating effect it has on surviving friends and family. "It's a narrative, it's a story," he told Broadly. Seiden explained that broadcasting death in a live-streamed video feed, while a new technological advancement, is simply human nature. "The man on the mountaintop is imagining God is his witness," he said. "Technology is just the latest tool."
Still, it is impossible to generalize the actions or motives of suicidal people. "Within the framework of interpersonal motives, there are as many motives as there are stories," Seiden said, explaining that when it comes to public acts of suicide, the only person who might know "why" is the victim themselves. "But whatever it means for the person doing it and whoever those he or she imagines are witnesses, being seen is certainly one of [those motives]."
"Maybe it's, 'Save me,'" he added. "Maybe it's, 'Try and save me, but you can't.'"
It isn't surprising to Seiden that online viewers tap into these streams. "There's no such thing as an accident without a crowd gathering and standing on tiptoes in order to see the person lying on the ground," he said. Violence and destruction are everywhere in American society, from the news to the entertainment industry. "There is a fascination with other's pain because it's only one gesture removed from our own pain," he said. "We could be the one lying on the pavement, and most of us know that we could be the one killing ourselves."
"The likelihood of someone being able to jump in and intervene in time before something awful happens is incredibly low," Lois said of suicides and other violent acts published through live-streaming platforms. Facebook, Periscope, and other streaming services are on the front lines of these tragedies; as time goes on, they will have to remain vigilant and develop better and faster modes of intervention. But that won't get to the root problem. "The reality is that if someone wants to commit suicide whether or not they live-stream may not matter," Lois said. "They may complete that suicide regardless of the streaming service."
This idea can further limit individuals' sense of responsibility. "In some ways, it sort of takes you off the hook for having to intervene because [it's like], I don't know this person, they don't know me, nobody knows that I'm looking at this," Lois said. But that way of thinking could mean the difference between someone's death or survival.
The police can try to stop it, but they are limited, too. "We can't possibly see every post that's being created," Banglid said. "We can't possibly look at every user's feed, nor do we wish to." The rest of us, then, become responsible for each other. It would be helpful if the public treated live-streaming acts of self-harm and criminal violence as if they were real emergencies that need to be responded to. "The sooner we become involved in an investigation, the sooner we can get to the bottom of it and perhaps even stop it in the midst of its mission," Banglid said.
Shortly after Biggs died, his father spoke with the Associated Press, and he suggested that anyone aware of his son's actions on Justin.tv—both the live-streaming provider and the commenters who egged him on—was at fault. "As a human being, you don't watch someone in trouble and sit back and just watch," he said.