The paper's attack on a suicide forum ended up driving membership
“Most suicide websites are about prevention. This one — started in March 2018 by two shadowy figures calling themselves Marquis and Serge — provides explicit directions on how to die.”
On Thursday, the New York Times took on another niche online community in a sprawling, 6000 word exposé entitled “Where the Despairing Log On and Learn Ways to Die.” Its target was a suicide discussion forum that includes a section describing painless suicide methods collated from various guides online. The existence of such a website on the open web, where it can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection, is no doubt concerning, but it is not clear how this Times story actually helps.
In the piece, the ‘Gray Lady’ reports that it identified 45 suicides “connected to the site,” thus implying that these individuals would be alive today had they not been “pulled in.” This is impossible to prove, if not unlikely, and it’s a logical fallacy the piece makes repeatedly. It alternates between voyeuristic accounts from grieving family members and a portrait of the “shadowy figures” responsible: two sociopathic incels who regularly evade takedown efforts to keep their death cult running.
The Times apparently made no effort to interview the site’s current members to better understand why anyone — including the handful of victims profiled in the piece — initially sought out the forum, which regularly receives four times more traffic than the National Suicide Prevention website. If its reporters did bother to dig a little, they would find that the forum is filled with users’ traumatic experiences in the mental health system, especially with suicide hotlines, whose operators are required to alert emergency services if they believe someone is a danger to themselves or others. Justifiably or not, failure here can erode trust, leading those most in need of such resources to seek out alternatives, and their perspective is worthy of inclusion.
Lacking even a veneer of balance, the piece presents efforts to improve the forum, such as increased moderation or additional recovery resources as cynical attempts to avoid accountability. It includes a few statistics along with emotionally-charged soundbites from experts, who explain that the site is “disgusting,” like “handing [members] a gun.” With stark black-and-white photographs and stylised animation, the story unfolds like a horror movie, complete with folk devils unveiled in the final act when their identities are revealed, along with descriptions of their homes and irrelevant, sensitive details about their families obtained through court records.
The Times’ investigation hinged on sheer luck, in the form of a massive leak of confidential registration documents obtained through EpikFail, a hack of a company that had previously provided hosting for the website. Using such information in reporting is legally protected given it is “in the public interest.”
It is unclear how the public benefits from learning the names and hometowns of the site administrators. Their inclusion does, however, make the story newsworthy, a potential concern given the similar and arguably more responsible piece by Vice News from November of 2020. But it is plainly irresponsible of the NYT to print the name of the website and a chemical used in many suicides in order to “fully inform readers of the dangers they pose.” This will surely just promote them further?
Suicide is quickly becoming a leading cause of death worldwide; as noted in the piece, there were 45,000 in the United States in 2019, a figure that has has likely increased since lockdowns. It is also a painful and difficult topic, especially when the young and vulnerable are involved, which is all the more reason these stories must be told with nuance and sensitivity, not in the service of an obvious agenda. There are clearly problematic elements about the website in question, but reporting on niche internet forums, or topics like incels and suicide is tricky; it always runs the risk of exacerbating problem by enhancing the allure of the bogeyman it helps create.
The website was already drawing in a weekly average of 50 new members. In the three days since the publication of the Times story, that number is approaching 500.