TikTok waited hours to contact police after teen broadcasted suicide

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It took hours for TikTok to contact the police after a teenager live broadcasted his suicide on the platform.

In the days leading up to the 19-year-old Brazilian’s death, he sent out concerning messages to his followers. The promise of a “special performance” brought viewers in the hundreds to view the teen’s stream. As nearly 300 people watched, the young man—referred to as João by the Intercept—took his own life. TikTok took more than four hours to contact authorities. During that time, João’s dead body was live streamed for more than an hour and a half.

Due to the company’s careful navigation, however, the story stayed quiet for nearly a year. If it was indeed the intent, TikTok succeeded in its efforts to bury the story. Until now, almost no one had heard of João’s death. The only reason the story is coming out at all, according to the Intercept, is thanks to a former employee of the Brazilian ByteDance offices. It fell to ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, to handle the frenzy following João’s suicide. The Intercept’s source also provided documents detailing the events of the day, including a thorough timeline.

According to the Intercept, João began his live stream at 3:21pm on Feb. 21, 2019, in Curtiba, Brazil. While indefinite, the company’s timeline marks the time of his suicide only a few minutes later, at 3:23pm. A spokesperson for TikTok could not confirm or deny the accuracy of the Intercept’s timeline. Over the course of more than an hour and a half, João’s stream was briefly banned twice—due to the lack of movement—but wasn’t permanently removed until after 5:00pm. In the hours between, multiple creators took screenshots of the live stream and sent messages to TikTok community managers. Meanwhile, João’s body was on display as commenters shared their horrified reactions and made dark jokes.

The live stream ran, in total, for more than an hour and a half. Once the company was aware of the stream, it took steps to remove the video. This, according to the Intercept’s timeline, occurred at 5:13pm. Then, the company’s public relations team was put on the task of damage control, and a message was crafted for the media. Because the press never picked up the story, the message was never released.

The police were not contacted until 7:56pm—four and a half hours following João’s death and nearly three hours after the stream’s discovery by TikTok officials. The 19-year-old’s body was recorded at the local morgue at 8:05pm, per the Intercept’s research.

A statement to users expressed that the company was “extremely sad about this tragedy.”

“We have measures in place to protect users from misusing the app, including simple mechanisms that allow you to report content that violates our terms of use,” the statement said.

TikTok’s spokesperson could not clarify what steps the company took to assist João’s family or users who witnessed his death.

A spokesperson for TikTok told the Daily Dot that the company’s lack of public response was not an effort to conceal the story. Rather, it leaned on the assertion that incidents like João’s death can sometimes lead to copycats. TikTok didn’t clarify what was done to prevent potential copycats who witnessed the suicide or the hour and a half of footage that followed.

João is, unfortunately, far from the first person to broadcast their death on TikTok. Several other suicides have taken place on the app since its global launch in 2017. Social media sites have long struggled to combat certain practices on their platforms. According to TikTok, the company has a solid policy in place regarding “content that promotes personal injury or suicide.” But the team of moderators that should have flagged and promptly removed João’s video didn’t catch it until it was flagged by TikTok users.

According to the Intercept’s source, TikTok’s main goal following the video’s discovery was to keep the story from going viral. “The main issue was just how unprepared the Chinese team was for a situation like this,” the former employee told the Intercept. “Where the app’s algorithm didn’t catch that it was a suicide, let alone bring down the live stream, even after so many complaints.”

The spokesperson told the Daily Dot that TikTok has greatly improved how it responds to incidents like this. The spokesperson acknowledged that the company had an internal breakdown, which led to undisclosed disciplinary action. The moderation team has been vastly improved in the year since João’s stream went up, according to the spokesperson, with the addition of highly experienced officials. While the company cannot assure that a similar incident will not occur again, the improved processes are intended to prevent any repeats. TikTok also issued an official statement on the matter.

“The safety and well-being of our users is a top priority at TikTok,” the statement reads. “Almost a year ago, we removed this content and alerted local authorities because we do not allow content that promotes self-harm or suicide, as stated in our Community Guidelines. We have since updated our live-streaming policies and improved our safety and moderation measures, as well as added new training, tools, and reporting protocols. We remain deeply saddened by this tragic incident, and our hearts go out to the family. We encourage anyone who may need support, or who is concerned on behalf of a friend or family member, to contact a suicide prevention hotline (Brazil: CVV 141).”

For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.).

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H/T the Intercept

Nahila Bonfiglio

Nahila Bonfiglio

Nahila Bonfiglio reports on geek culture and gaming. Her work has also appeared on KUT's Texas Standard (Austin), KPAC-FM (San Antonio), and the Daily Texan.