Facebook’s High-Stakes Dilemma Over Suicide Videos
Social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter’s Periscope have made videos simpler for people to share online, but now these companies are in a race against time to respond quickly to posts depicting self-harm — before they go viral.
Balancing the risks of suicide contagion with free speech, newsworthiness and other factors, these companies’ complex decisions to leave a video up or pull it down can mean the difference between life and death for people attempting suicide.
“It’s a hard place for these companies to be, to make decisions about what they’re going to allow and what they’re not going to allow, because it becomes a slippery slope quickly,” said Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. Facebook, the world’s largest social network with nearly 2 billion users, rolled out suicide-prevention tools to provide help-line information and resources to those in distress.
Sometimes, leaving a video up can allow family and friends to reach out to the person or call law enforcement for help. Occasionally, Facebook and its users have successfully intervened.
While Facebook may leave up videos if they provide a lifeline to the person in distress, the company often takes them down afterward amid concerns about the impact on survivors and copycat suicides.
Facebook has online rules against promoting or encouraging suicide or self-injury, but the tech firm also started allowing more content that people find newsworthy even if it violates the company’s standards. For example, the social media giant said it left up a video of an Egyptian man who set himself on fire to protest rising government prices because it believed his act was newsworthy.
“It’s hard to judge the intent behind one post, or the risk implied in another,” wrote Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, in a recent blog post. “Someone posts a graphic video of a terrorist attack. Will it inspire people to emulate the violence, or speak out against it? Someone posts a joke about suicide. Are they just being themselves, or is it a cry for help?”