Their eyes glued to the screens of their cellphones, some 280 people watched the young vlogger kill himself live on TikTok, last year’s fourth-most downloaded app in the world. It was 3:23 p.m. on February 21, 2019. The video, with 497 comments and 15 complaints, remained live for more than an hour and a half, simply showing João’s body. (The Intercept is using a pseudonym for João to protect his family’s privacy.)
Officials at TikTok, which has seen a meteoric rise among a sea of phone apps, only became aware of the suicide at 5 p.m. The company immediately began putting a public relations strategy in place to ensure that what had occurred never made headlines.
TikTok acted rapidly – not to alert the authorities or the young man’s family, but to avoid tarnishing the company’s image.
Between 5 p.m. and 7:56 p.m., TikTok’s Brazil office began to take steps to minimize the impact any potential story would have in the press. The company waited nearly three hours after learning about the suicide before reaching out to the police. Instead of alerting authorities immediately, the company prepared a press statement — that it never released of its own volition — taking no responsibility for failures of the moderation mechanisms that left the livestream online for more than an hour. Officials inside TikTok issued internal orders to ensure that the story did not go “viral” and said its local office should monitor TikTok and other social media platforms to see if the story surfaced publicly.
Details of the moves were revealed to The Intercept Brasil by a former employee of the Brazilian offices of ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. The source also provided The Intercept with an internal document that detailed the company’s management of the crisis, including a granular timeline of what happened. The account of the events below is drawn from the company memo and interviews with the source.
According to the source and the document, the day that João killed himself, the ByteDance office took action — not to alert the authorities or the young man’s family, but to prevent the incident from tarnishing the company’s image.
Suicide on Social Apps
João is not the first person to have shown their own death on TikTok, although his was the first known case of an individual streaming it live on the app. In India, a country with one of the largest TikTok user bases, at least two other suicides have occurred on the app. An Indian judge even blocked the social networking platform temporarily, but the decision was ultimately reversed.
Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have strategies in place to deal with sensitive content such as suicides. Those two sites have partnerships with institutions specializing in suicide prevention like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In addition to support systems for users and artificial-intelligence filters that detect content for removal, these platforms also have teams that focus on streamlining contact and collaboration with local authorities, something that TikTok failed to do in João’s case.
While companies have no legal obligation to deal with offensive or troubling content, many companies take some precautions to remove this content from their platforms. “Competitors have much more precise indicators of sensitive situations than TikTok appears to have,” said Thiago Tavares, president of SaferNet Brazil, an organization that works on user protection and the defense of human rights on the internet. Tavares added that TikTok did not demonstrate best practices in its attempt to make sure that the story did not blow up.
Last year, the suicide of a 14-year-old girl, allegedly preceded by suicidal content and self-mutilation on Instagram, prompted the U.K. Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield to write a letter urging tech companies to prioritize precautionary measures. “I would appeal to you to accept there are problems and to commit to tackling them — or admit publicly that you are unable to,” she wrote.
Though TikTok’s Brazilian office did not respond to a list of 10 specific questions sent by The Intercept, the company did offer a short statement acknowledging that around a year ago, it had removed content related to a suicide from its network and alerted local authorities.
The TikTok statement said that the company does not allow “content that promotes personal injury or suicide.” In the past year, the company said, it had updated live broadcasting policies and reporting tools and protocols, but did not offer any specifics. “We remain deeply saddened by this tragic incident and sympathize with the family,” the statement said. “We encourage anyone who needs support or is concerned about a friend or family member to contact a suicide hotline.”
Suicide is the second-largest cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24, and in Brazil, the number of young people who die by suicide is only increasing. The World Health Organization warns that, due to the risk of copycat syndrome, the issue should be treated with increased caution, especially among young and depressed populations. It’s not hard to imagine the impact a livestreamed suicide that aired for over an hour may have had on those who watched it.
Public Relations First
In 2018, TikTok was downloaded more than 18 million times in Brazil, making the country the sixth-largest market in the world for the app. To capitalize on its potential for growth in Brazil, TikTok hired celebrities like the singer Anitta — one of Brazil’s top-grossing artists — and created influencer-led groups on the platform.
Last February, ByteDance opened its new office in São Paulo, Brazil’s commercial and financial center. The company’s 60 or so employees were divided into teams focusing on social networks, content, influencers, partnerships, moderators, and administrators. ByteDance manages activity on TikTok Brazil, from contact with users to the removal of videos from the platform. It was in this office — a full floor in an expensive section of town — that company officials worked to manage the crisis of João’s suicide.
According to the company’s internal timeline, TikTok only became aware of what was happening when a number of influencers began sending warnings to a WhatsApp group that included some ByteDance employees. The livestream of the suicide was on air for more than 40 minutes, briefly taken down automatically due to a lack of movement in the frame and then later reinstated.
In total, the livestream was up for more than an hour and a half. Some users wrote frightened comments on the post, while others took the opportunity to make a series of macabre jokes as João’s inert body was on display.
When the group of concerned TikTok influencers warned moderators that evening, the first step the company took was to request the deletion of João’s account, at 5:13 p.m.
“Her orders were clear: ‘Don’t let it go viral.’”
Following that request, employees working on the case contacted the PR team, which promptly crafted a condolence message addressed to users and a press statement. The statement in case of any press attention said:
The TikTok statement marked an immediate attempt to respond to criticism if the livestreamed suicide attracted media attention, but TikTok also seemed to have a goal of keeping the story out of the press.
According to the ByteDance source, TikTok’s chief of operations in Brazil and Latin America advised employees of the Brazilian office not to say anything about what had occurred. “Her orders were clear: ‘Don’t let it go viral,’” the source told me.
“The main issue was just how unprepared the Chinese team was for a situation like this,” the former employee said, “where the app’s algorithm didn’t catch that it was a suicide, let alone bring down the livestream, even after so many complaints.”
No Media Coverage
The story of a suicide livestreamed on TikTok stayed quiet. To this day, there has been no media coverage of João’s suicide. The company’s PR statement never had to be used.
As TikTok continued its crisis-management efforts, awareness of the case was still limited to its employees. It was only at 7:56 p.m. — more than two and a half hours after the PR team sprang into action and four and a half hours after the suicide — that TikTok informed Paraná police.
In João’s file at Curitiba’s morgue, which we obtained, João’s entry was recorded at 8:05 p.m., a mere nine minutes after TikTok informed police of the suicide, according to the company’s internal timeline.
The internal TikTok document obtained by The Intercept highlighted the steps that the office team should take in the wake of the suicide: Monitor Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok for 48 hours to ensure that the matter did not become public. When that 48-hour period passed, the story had not come out. João’s suicide had not affected the company’s image in the slightest.