The potential harm of the viral sharing of “Genie, you’re free.”
On the evening of Monday, August 11, 2014, as fans around the world began to grieve Robin Williams’ tragic and unexpected death, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (better known, as the people behind the Oscars) sent out what may be the iconic social media image of Williams’ death.
More than 322,000 people (and counting) have shared the tweet, which means that, per some analytics sites, as many as 71 million people have probably seen it.
So what’s the big deal? Isn’t it just a sweet, heart-felt sentiment offered in a time of tragedy? Well, no… It actually violates very well-established public health standards for how we should talk about suicide.
Most people who saw and shared the tweet may not have thought for a second that it crossed any kind of line, but even if it doesn’t it comes very close to it. Suicide should never be presented as an option. Because in doing so, no matter how innocently, it is an avenue for potential contagion.
Please, don’t be too quick to roll your eyes, exit this page, and write me off as some kind of paranoid over-reactor. There exists an extremely sad and well-documented phenomenon, known as “copycat suicide,” in which media coverage or publicity around one death encourages other vulnerable people to commit suicide in the same way. Somewhat similar to how we see copycat crimes and mass-murders. Adolescents are most at risk of some form of suicide contagion; in recent years, groups like American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) have also become particularly attentive to the role the Internet plays in romanticizing notorious or high-profile deaths, something it has long asked both the news and entertainment industries to avoid.
Even Robin Williams told The Guardian during an interview back in 2010 that, “Well, you just try and keep it in perspective; you have to remember the best and the worst. In America, they really do mythologize people when they die.”
The high potential for television/online reports, tweets, photos, videos, blogs, articles, and stories to go viral makes it all the more vital that the coverage of a suicide follow the prevention industry safety recommendations (or at the very least a link and contact info for seeking help).
In the hours since @TheAcademy tweet went viral, some people have become aware that it does not, in fact, follow the established safety recommendations. The image shows the starry sky from Disney’s Aladdin, and the written implication that suicide is somehow a liberating option… this presents suicide in much too celebratory a light.
However, now that just about all media is so social, and anyone can go viral, it’s more difficult to educate influencers on those issues. The ASFP has issued a response to the unsafe reporting of this tragic news. (It is unclear who at the Academy actually sent the tweet, and the Academy has yet to respond to any requests for further comment as far as I know.) In whatever the case though, some advice for organizations and individuals talking about Williams’ death online that would be wise to consider: Be sure to acknowledge that suicide has underlying issues – such as depression… and those issues can be addressed.
The focus of any current media attention should of course be on Robin Williams’ incredible life, and all the good he contributed to this world while he was here. We should enjoy the nostalgic remembrance of all the laughter he gave us over the years through his movies and shows. We should become more aware about the crippling pain that is depression and how to help. If you don’t know what is depression like, well you’re not missing out on anything, because it’s kind of like drowning. Except you can see everyone else around you breathing. We should be careful though, not to celebrate or glorify how he died in any way.
Or perhaps instead of Aladdin’s words, we can better remember Robin Williams’ last lines (after the credits) as the Genie from the Aladdin movie: “You have been a fabulous audience! Tell you what, you’re the best audience in the whole world. Take care of yourselves! Good night, Alice! Good night, Agrabah! Adios, amigos!”
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