A disturbing website encourages vulnerable users to die by suicide. What is being done about it?
Editor’s note: The following story deals with suicide. If you have suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (Spanish: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889).
To access suicide prevention resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.
There’s an alarming phenomenon happening online and in real life: suicide enablers encouraging others to die – often when they’re most vulnerable.
Last month, The New York Times dug deep into a specific website that provides methods, encouragement, and even pressure to die. Investigative reporter Megan Twohey co-reported the story, which serves as a cautionary tale for those who find these sites as they seek support – and for families of young people who don’t realize their loved ones may have landed in some of the darkest places on the internet.
In “Where the desperate connect and learn ways to die”, Twohey confirmed 45 deaths of participants, some of whom were just young teenagers, who frequented the website, which launched in March 2018. She says it attracts tens of thousands of members from around the world and gets around 6 million monthly views.
Almost half of the site’s members are under 25, she says, and users often identify as suffering from depression, bipolar disorder and other forms of mental illness.
The site offers detailed methods on how to die by suicide – which makes the forum “particularly dangerous” and “steers it into potential criminal activity”, says Twohey.
Members gather information through the site’s live chats and public blog posts, where fellow members openly push each other in their suicidal plans. “Goodbye threads,” among the site’s most popular draws, are posts where members document their suicide in real time and other users react with emojis or comment with words of encouragement.
“When we talk to suicide experts, they tell us that for most people, suicidal thoughts are temporary. They’ll be fine,” says Twohey. “But if people learn effective methods and become convinced it’s the right thing to do, they’re more likely to follow – and we’ve seen that.”
The reporter identified a 17-year-old in Texas who discovered the site last January during the pandemic. Within a month, she says he followed the methods he found on the site and recounted his suicide attempt on a goodbye thread.
Twohey also identified a 16-year-old from Salt Lake City, Utah, who she says suffered from depression when she was 13, but got help with medication and treatment. . After a while, the doctors agreed that he was doing so well that he no longer needed treatment.
By the time he turned 16, the straight college student who seemed to be doing well became concerned about an undiagnosed stomach problem, she says. During this time he found the website.
“Once he was lured to the site, it was only a matter of months before he learned a method of suicide and basically experienced his death on a blog with these other members. weighing in with messages of support,” she said. “His parents had no idea he was on that website until it was too late.”
Some site users are sparking conversations about prevention resources and reasons to keep fighting. But these are offset by the onslaught of publications promoting reasons to die. The site was “purposely designed” to support the latter, she says.
“His parents had no idea he was on that website until it was too late.”
Journalist Megan Twohey
The two people who created the website are known by their online names Marquis and Serge. They both went to great lengths to conceal their identities and erase all traces of themselves from the internet, she says. They made it clear on the site that anyone who comes just looking for suicide prevention resources is not welcome, she said.
Twohey and his co-reporter tracked down Marquis, who they identified as Lamarcus Small from Huntsville, Alabama, and Serge, who is Diego Joaquín Galante from Montevideo, Uruguay.
The men were contacted before the Times article was published and both denied having anything to do with the website, she said. Galante backtracked and said that while a member of the site, he denied ownership.
“At that time, we had plenty of evidence to show that they were, in fact, the people who founded and operated this website,” she says, “and since the story was published, they have essentially resigned from the website”.
Families around the world, outraged by the existence of the online forum, began to bring it to the attention of authorities. German and Australian officials succeeded in restricting access to the site, she says, but when American families pleaded with Congress, law enforcement and tech companies to investigate criminal activity on the site, no action was taken.
In Australia, search engine companies have swept away affected families and even authorities, with tech companies claiming they are just the messengers of information, she says.
Since the Times published its investigation in December, the website’s new administrator has disabled the public visibility of the message containing methods of suicide. Now, a user must be a member to see this information, she says.
The article stimulated congressional action, she says. Members of Congress have reached out to tech companies like Google asking for explanations about the site’s accessibility on their search engines and also pushed the US Department of Justice to investigate the site’s two founders, Galante and Small, says -she.
Uruguayan law enforcement has also launched a criminal investigation into Galante, she notes.
Twohey and the Times staff say they felt it was imperative to tell this story as the country faces an unprecedented suicide crisis – especially among young people. She says she and her fellow reporters saw it as an ethical obligation to report on the staggering number of site members dying each week, the site’s explicit suicide instructions, and why the site continues to operate.
Digging deeper into the website also allowed the reporting team to explore the wider implications of vulnerable minors on the internet, restrictions and who is held liable for damages.
“The hope was that it would lead to more liability than anything else,” she says.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Spanish: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or Crisis text line by texting 741741.
Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this broadcast interview with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.