Truths and lies on the internet: case report of a suicide broadcast over the web

suicide_2439218fRecently the British Journal of Psychiatry, one of the highest impact journals in psychiatry, published a case report about a young Swedish man who committed suicide and decided to broadcast his death over the Internet. At 11:51 AM on October 11, 2010, the 21-year-old created the thread “hanging” on a Swedish forum called Flashback. This forum is known to be notorious, having already been the subject of numerous lawsuits because of controversial content. The article assesses the messages posted on the topic created by the suicidal young man from its opening until its closure, hours after his death.

The thread starter (TS) announces that he will hang himself because he is tired of his life. He says he has Asperger’s syndrome and feels very lonely. TS also comments that he had already made a test to establish whether he would be able to hang himself, which suggests that he is determined to actually carry out his suicide. He then writes that he will utilize a camera to take pictures every 2 seconds and posts the camera’s IP address on the forum for people to follow.

The initial reactions to the post were diverse. Nevertheless, almost half of the messages encouraged TS to commit suicide. Some people challenge him about the veracity of his promise and TS shows that he is clearly determined to take his own life. In a few messages users try to dissuade him from the idea. These messages seem to have some effect on TS, who answers, “Starting to think I might change my mind about killing me, I better hurry up a bit…”

At 13:13, TS writes “OK, let’s do it”, and then he hangs himself. The number of messages in the thread increases more than 10-fold. Even after the act, 49% of people commented neutrally about the event; 27% found it tragic, but 24% thought the fact was humorous or entertaining.

The Internet enables us to get in touch with a great range of people. Even though we can be in this crowd, one can still feel alone. That was a complaint of TS, and also a common complaint about our present time, not only via the Internet but also in the real world. The Internet provides restricted contact that can also be simultaneously intimate. Restricted because we can’t touch people, we can see them but in most cases we only communicate through messages. There is a wheezing in the interpersonal. However, it can become intimate and true because people write things that often they do not have the courage to speak in person. On the contrary, the Internet often involves the false. For example, how many people enter chats pretending to be another person, lying about their attributes and saying things that are not true? Fake profiles, e-mails containing Trojan horses are routine.

TS said that he felt loneliness and sought to transmit the final minutes of his life, perhaps in an attempt to placate a little of his loneliness through an act of reality. However, falsity betrayed him. For many people, who were accustomed to the false nature of the Internet, and also driven by the taboo surrounding suicide, thought it was just another joke of a controversial online forum even though TS had shown the seriousness of his intentions. Perhaps a kind of denial defense by the participants?

Finally, despite all of the reactions to the act, 62% of participants felt that there were ways to prevent the suicide, such as via support messages on the forum or by alerting the police, for example.

The Internet is a vehicle that is capable of generating a lot of lies, but it is—at the same time—able to disseminate truths. The TS case report shows that the network can be a tool to prevent such tragedies, either through the dissemination of truthful information (in breaking of taboos about suicide, there are several studies on “suicide communication” and what to do with it), either through the reception of truths that often do not appear in reality (TS only shared his intentions via the virtual plane by using the Internet as a mean of a legitimate connection).

Ref.: Westerlund M., Hadlaczky G., Wasserman D., 2015. Case study of posts before and after a suicide on a Swedish internet forum. Br J Psychiatry 207, 476-482.

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