This week The Intercept reported that a TikTok user livestreamed his suicide in Brazil. According to the report, the short video app's parent company, ByteDance, waited at least three hours before it eventually contacted local authorities.
During those three hours, per Intercept, ByteDance aggressively worked on a PR strategy. An anonymous ex-employee for ByteDance revealed a granular company timeline to The Intercept, detailing when the user began his livestream, when WhatsApp messages about the incident began coming in, when requests for a ban appeared, and more.
It's a grotesque report that sheds critical light on how the companies of these incredibly popular apps, especially among young people, remain woefully unequipped to handle a myriad of issues, including users' mental health, content moderation, graphic content, and unmistakably, ethics.
'Don't let it go viral' — According to the former ByteDance employee, the chief of TikTok operations in Brazil ordered that the suicide clip should not hit the media or public's radar. "Her orders were clear: ‘Don’t let it go viral,'" said the anonymous source.
In response to detailed questions posed by The Intercept, TikTok issued a stunningly bare statement. It acknowledged to the outlet that indeed a suicide had been livestreamed on TikTok and added that the company did not permit "content that promotes personal injury or suicide."
As such, according to the company, TikTok was actively working on implementing robust broadcasting rules and protocols. But the company did not elaborate on how exactly these new regulations would work. "We remain deeply saddened by this tragic incident and sympathize with the family," TikTok officially stated. "We encourage anyone who needs support or is concerned about a friend or family member to contact a suicide hotline."
Unacceptable — For a company that obsessively and immediately censors content deemed "problematic" to the sensitivities of ByteDance higher-ups, ByteDance's reported response to a TikTok user's suicide is without question unacceptable. Given that TikTok is one of the most downloaded apps in the world — with 18 million downloads in Brazil alone — the company not only has a technical responsibility to effectively handle such content but also a moral obligation to prioritize the dignity and wellbeing of its millions of users over a hackneyed PR strategy.