Facebook is using AI to scan for posts and comments that could be early warning signs of suicidal ideation or intent, so it can take preemptive action.
Deepak Kumar Rohilla, 32, of Sonipat district in Haryana, hanged himself while streaming his suicide on Facebook (FB) Live last week. His sister Neelam Rani and his friends watched him killing himself on FB, helplessly pleading with him: “Don’t do this brother, we all are there for you,” Neelam commented on the Live post.
She couldn’t stop him. “I called up the neighbours, who rushed to our house, but it was too late,” said Neelam.
Deepak, who left behind a young wife and five-year-old son, scribbled a suicide note on a wall in his room. He said he was “facing threat to his life from a married woman in his neighbourhood and her alleged lover after he told her husband about their illicit relationship.”
“Deepak wrote on the wall that the woman, an assistant sub-inspector, had an affair with an inspector and after he came to know about it, he narrated everything to her husband,” Sonipat superintendent of police (SP) Ashwin Shenvi said in this article.
His recent Facebook posts had hinted at his growing depression and suicidal thoughts.
Deepak even uploaded a black-and-white image of a silhouetted figure hanging from a rope on April 15, which seems to indicate how he was planning his death. When some of his friends asked why he put it up, he cryptically asked them to “wait and watch”.
This is not the first time someone has used a social media platform to “share” his/her anguish and live stream a suicide. FB Live streaming of suicides and murders is becoming alarmingly frequent. On April 3, 24-year-old Arjun Bhardwaj killed himself by jumping off the 19th floor of a five-star hotel in Bandra, Mumbai. Bhardwaj, too, streamed an FB Live, making it seem like a tutorial on how to commit suicide.
While the original FB Live video was deleted by Facebook (it reportedly got 36,336 views in two weeks) it is still available on YouTube, where it has notched up 4,933 views. The writer of this article reached out to Bharadwaj’s family in Mumbai, but they declined to comment.
In the US in January this year, Jay Bowdy, an aspiring actor, shot himself dead in his car on a Los Angeles street after threatening to kill himself on Facebook Live.
Last October, 22-year-old Erdogan Ceren from Turkey sat in front of his computer camera holding a shotgun while on FB Live. He was unsuccessful in first attempt to take his life, but made a second attempt and was later found dead by his family.
The disturbing and increasing number of such episodes of people streaming suicides on FB Live have led to netizens raising objections to social media platforms making the live streaming option available to all their users without any filtering mechanism in place.
Facebook recognises the problem, and is trying to limit the broadcast of violent and disturbing videos besides working to help prevent suicides. In a blog post on its site, the company said it “is in a unique position — through friendships on the site — to help connect a person in distress with people who can support them”. It added that it was updating the tools and resources it offers to people who may be contemplating suicide, as well as the support it offers to their friends and family. According to the blog, it is taking a three-pronged approach:
During the annual F8 developers conference held in San Jose, California in the US April 18-19, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about a murder video posted by Steve W Stephen gunning down 74-year-old Robert Godwin Sr posted on Facebook. He said the company would do everything to prevent such tragedies. ‘We have a lot of work, and we will keep doing all we can to prevent tragedies like this from happening.”
True to Zuckerberg’s word, Facebook is using artificial intelligence (AI) and is developing algorithms to scan for posts, comments and other online behaviour of users that could be early warning signs of suicidal ideation or intent, so it can take preemptive action by reporting them to the community, law enforcement agencies or rescue operation teams. According to a BBC report, Facebook is testing AI to identify users who may be at risk of killing themselves in the US.
Facebook is using AI and is developing algorithms to scan for posts, comments and other online behaviour of users that could be early warning signs of suicidal ideation or intent, so it can take preemptive action by reporting them to the community, law enforcement agencies or rescue operation teams
“Our in-product tools provide resources to help someone reach out on Facebook to a friend who may be struggling and also has resources specifically for a person who may be expressing suicidal thoughts” — Facebook spokesperson
About 800,000 people commit suicide worldwide every year and India accounts for 17% of them. The male-female suicide ratio in India is 2:1. On an average, 300 people commit suicide in India every day. Consuming poison (33%), hanging (38%) and self-immolation (9%) were the primary methods used to commit suicide in 2012 and family problems was the top cited reason.
Noted sociologist Dr Jitender Prasad from Central University of Haryana said many victims seek to draw attention to the anguish or desperation that is leading them to have suicidal thoughts. “It happens when they lose faith in the system; they resort to social media tools like Facebook and YouTube to vent their frustration,” said Dr Prasad.
But acts of threatened and attempted suicide don’t seem to be evoking the empathy their perpetrators are looking for on social media. Bharadwaj’s desperate suicide spectacle received a bunch of apathetic comments poking fun at him on the video posted on YouTube. Some users, including news channels, have shared the video.
Dr Mahesh Kumar, a professor of psychology at Delhi University, attributes the rising trend of suicides on social media and the enormous power it offers to connect to millions with the click of a mouse. “A social media user immerses himself in the virtual world so completely that he is connected with everybody despite sitting alone. But, he feels (he’s) alone when sitting in a group or among family members,” Kumar said. He added that China runs digital detox clinics for patients who become social media addicts and is an urgent need for that sort of intervention in India.
Also read: The deadly addiction in your home that you are aware of — and comfortable with
The policy interventions in China, meanwhile, is cold comfort for a sister in Sonipat.
Neelam blames technology for her brother’s act and for live-streaming his own death: “Earlier people used to connect with each other by sitting together and talking. Things have changed completely. Now, everyone is busy with their smartphones. They share their feelings, miseries, ups and downs on Facebook and other social media platforms.”
She fears more people may be prompted to replicate the act if her brother’s suicide video is still on the internet.
Research shows that when suicides are reported or shown in detail, including how the person did it, there is a sharp rise in “copycat” suicides. Vulnerable people are triggered and influenced by the gratuitous details of suicide stories. If one feels suicidal, it’s not uncommon to feel compelled to watch such videos and step closer to the edge.