Resident YouTube frat boy Logan Paul recently uploaded — and has since deleted — a video in which he filmed and tactlessly reacted to the body of a man who had taken his life in Japan’s Aokigahara forest, a 12-square mile plot of land at the base of Mount Fuji that has garnered international attention for being one of the world’s most popular suicide sites.
Paul and his cohorts come across the body of a suicide victim and somehow deem it appropriate to record close-up footage of the dead man’s body, while providing thoughtless running commentary on the man. While displaying a level of emotional disconnect that can only be explained by assuming that this guy must be a closeted sociopath, Paul laughs off his buddies’ discomfort at the situation, saying, “What, you never stand next to a dead guy?” while he continues to film his observational callousness.
Paul is rightly facing a relentless backlash. Countless actors, fellow content creators, and other celebrities have taken to their public spaces to call a repulsive spade a spade and are pressing YouTube to demonetize and remove Paul’s account entirely. Paul, in a likely attempt to protect a significant income stream and the backbone of his social media empire, released a half-hearted, typed-out “apology” that made sure to remind readers of his massive viewership and influence, while seeming alarmingly disconnected from why he had so massively effed up.
And it was Paul, not YouTube, who ultimately took the video down, but not before it had amassed 6.3 million views, a particularly horrific thing to digest after realizing that most of Paul’s 15.2 million subscribers are mostly kids. To put that into perspective: Logan Paul has more subscribers than the entire populations of Greece, Belgium, Portugal, or Sweden. Imagine, hypothetically, that half the population of one of those countries is children. Now imagine all of them watching 15 minutes of an insensitive idiot degrading the severity of suicide in order to garner clicks on a YouTube video to ultimately make himself more money. If you’re not outraged, check your pulse.
Paul is deserving of every ounce of flack he’s receiving for this, but I can’t help but think that the steady decline of social media content and etiquette has somewhat paved the way for influencers to blindly believe that they’re well within the boundaries of acceptability when stepping outrageously out of line like this. To some degree, we shouldn’t be surprised when a content creator cluelessly believes bleeping out curse words and blurring the face of a corpse is more important than not filming the body of a man who took his own life for the sake of shock value and views.
Almost every social media platform is riddled with targeted harassment, threats of physical harm and, chillingly, even death threats, many of which are often met with a blind eye from hosting platforms. It’s an extreme rightly deserving of collective condemnation, but it took a hell of a lot of boundary stretching for that outrage to finally bubble up into what we’ve deemed the ultimate crossed line.
If you’ve ever spent more than five minutes on Twitter, you’re not immune to what I’m talking about. The platform has become a cesspool of venomous and targeted tweets once attributed to Twitter’s most spiteful trolls, but the response to digital abuse has oddly shifted gears, with its originators seemingly rewarded with upped subscribers, views, likes, and followers.
We are right to avoid internalizing the anonymous chorus of folks tweeting mean things — and it’s worth noting that even hate speech is a protected freedom under the First Amendment — but the increase of targeted threats and abuse on social media platforms and the shift in how we respond to it should serve as a greater reflection of what social media has ultimately become, or, at least, what digital platforms and their consumers have ultimately allowed.
Take for instance the digital assault on comedian Leslie Jones in 2016 by racist and sexist Twitter users after she debuted in a “Ghostbusters” remake. The relentless attacks forced her off the platform after Twitter initially refused to intervene. Jones was inundated with tweets comparing her to gorillas and slinging racial slurs at her, and one user even set up a parody account under her name, and began tweeting out slurs and insults in order to direct even more vitriol and hate toward the star.
Twitter eventually permanently banned known troll Milo Yiannopoulos, who was behind the attack and had intentionally drummed up his equally-as-awful army of followers to target Jones, but only after receiving a lot of criticism for sitting on the sidelines as the harassment unfolded. Since then, Twitter has exploded into a warehouse of targeted attacks. Death threats, some alarmingly specific, are a daily occurrence. The address of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s home was tweeted out alongside encouragement to attack him, his wife, and his children after Pai rolled back the Obama-era net neutrality regulations late last year. And indeed, Pai’s house was visited and vandalized by psychopaths who found his address on the internet.
If this is what social media has become, is it any wonder that a social media influencer was entirely removed from empathy when stumbling across the body of a man who had intentionally killed himself?
Twitter trolls will always exist, as will people who exploit terrible tragedies for their own benefit — Paul has much in common with the Houston-based looters who ransacked the storm-torn town after Hurricane Harvey caused millions in damages and took the priceless lives of almost 100 people. But perhaps it’s time to look the dark chasm of the internet in the eyes, and finally decide to be better.