Suicide Hashtag Livetweeting
Only know one of the words in that title? A Twitter glossary is essential to this story on #unsuicide, so that’s where I’ll start.
Twitter is the hottest social medium du jour. 140 character posts about anything (pithy observations, links to text, photos, videos, or podcasts, spreading others’ Tweets in a retweet – RT – etc.) are posted to your Twitter feed, like a public blog feed that can be followed by anyone, while you follow others too. Tweets are that short so they can be sent and received by text messages from mobile devices. That’s what makes Twitter more useful and popular than most other social media; it combines texting with blogging. Livetweeting is writing about something as it happens, usually on scene. A hashtag is the combination of # with a word, which tags a Tweet in a way to let others easily find it, and when lots of people use the same hashtag it brings them into one big webby, texty fast and easy conversation on that subject. A hashtag doesn’t need to be about livetweeting but can be. A good example is #bushfire. Tweeters used it to communicate during recent Australian bush fires, and are still using it to organize relief efforts for that tragedy. If you thought Twitter was just people telling each other what they had for lunch, check out #twestival (and Twestival’s website) and other fantastic charitable movements being hashtagged. Twitter is used for very innovative and positive social actions as well as friends bonding over food (a positive social action also).
In Los Angeles, a man sought by police for an alleged armed assault was about to be arrested when he escaped in his white Bentley. He led them on a low speed chase and standoff that lasted several hours. Along the way, he collected a following of television helicopters and Twitter users in the area who livetwittered it. Rumours spread that the man was a celebrity, first Chris Brown then DJ Khaled, leading to even more Tweeters joining conversation in the #bentley and #chase hashtags. Lots of media metacommentary about how Twitter was being taken seriously as a media source by the net and old media TV crews, along with thoughts like “had high hopes this was gonna be DEATH RACE: CHRIS BROWN EDITION” and “you know the music sales are bad when dude has to do a standoff in a #bentley just to get hits on his Myspace!” It ended when, surrounded by police cars, cameras, and people busily livetweeting from their phones, the man shot himself and his identity was later revealed to be Mustafa Mustafa.
The fake Twitter account @WhiteBentley was created to mock the driver as it happened, Wikipedia edits made up a false ending about the wrong guy, and a lot of tasteless remarks about suicide were made. The fakery and gossip show problems with Twitter as a dependable media source (but it can be genuine and unique, so this issue will evolve). Still, we can only have faith that this NBC story was accurate, as those kinds of news reports always lack nuance and background. Who do we trust?
NBC says the man killed himself because he was “distraught over the loss of his business.” Mental health professionals know it’s always more complicated. Domestic violence was apparently involved and likely there was depression, as in the majority of suicides, if not other mental illnesses (but I don’t have info to speculate either). The mass media don’t often report on suicides; due to the well-researched suicide contagion risk there’s an ethical code to keep it out of headlines. When there are reports it’s usually simplified to be about money or lost love. These may be factors but aren’t the full story and the viewer doesn’t learn anything useful – if anything, sort of expected to feel they aren’t at risk if they didn’t just lose a business or lover or Grammy. Rarely are suicide hotline numbers shared.
Meanwhile back on Twitter, the livetweeting of insensitive comments during this crisis wasn’t totally new. We’ve seen it on the Internet over and over in examples that always seem to shock, though the shock never stops it from recurring. Whether suicide is witnessed through a chat room, blog or live cam stream, social media lets people disconnect as easily as they might connect – as with all forms of media. I’m glad to see #bentley #chase criticized for that, but jerks will keep being jerks.
While there are always people who’ll try to help someone in distress, others mock and egg them on even after the threat is proved real and the person dies. Fake suicide blog 90 Day Tania was a media project in response to that, meant to prevent suicides of people with depression who feel they deserve abuse and notoriety on a path to death.
Could fake suicide livetweeting do that too? It’s hard to know how much effect 90 Day Tania had or what similar projects might have, since there’s been no published research on new media interventions that might incorporate suicide prevention programs like psychoeducation, crisis counseling, peer support, or all three. I haven’t found any of those types of services on Twitter beyond possible informal peer support, which isn’t organized.
So, I made the hashtag #unsuicide to share crisis service contacts and related things. Tweet your helpful messages to #unsuicide too, and we’ll watch those metrics trend.
Sandra Kiume is a mental health advocate. Along with contributing to World of Psychology, she blogs at Channel N about brain and behaviour videos, and is the founder of @unsuicide and Online Suicide Help. She lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Kiume, S. (2018). Suicide Hashtag Livetweeting. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 4, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/suicide-hashtag-livetweeting/