HideTechdirt is off for the long weekend! We'll be back with our regular posts tomorrow.
HideTechdirt is off for the long weekend! We'll be back with our regular posts tomorrow.

The Making Of A Moral Panic, Courtesy Of The NY Times

from the stop-this dept

We've been talking a bit lately about how the media creates moral panics, especially ones that blame social media for problems that are much more likely mostly created by the media themselves.

And here's another example of the virtuous cycle, in which the New York Times is able to first create a moral panic, and then gets to keep reporting on Congress "investigating" the moral panic the NY Times itself created. It started with an article in the NY Times discussing a website, which I will not name, that has created forums for those interested in suicide. The article is presented as saying (1) that the website encourages suicide... and (2) then appears to blame Section 230 for it. The reality, on both of those points, is a hell of a lot more complicated.

First off, discussions about "encouraging" suicide are always somewhat fraught. I've lost two friends to suicide, and it's very, very natural to look for people to blame. But it's often counterproductive, and no one can ever know for sure what actually caused someone to decide to end their life. A decade ago we talked about this a bit, in regards to two separate lawsuits looking to hold liable people who, it was argued, "drove" others to suicide. Except, as we noted at the time, when you blame people for "driving" or "encouraging" suicide, you are actually giving way more power to the suicide itself, because it gives more power to those thinking of killing themselves, knowing that it will punish people who had been mean to them. In other words, trying to hold people liable for "encouraging" suicide can, unfortunately, actually encourage more suicide in and of itself.

Suicide itself is a very fraught topic. In early 2021, Katie Engelhart's book The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die came out, and it's worth reading. It made me, personally, feel conflicted about the idea of assisted suicide and the right to die -- and reminded me that it's impossible to decide that there's a "right" answer here. Every case is unique and they all involve a whole bunch of difficult moral decisions that different people weigh in different ways. But blaming others for the very personal decisions that an individual makes seems incredibly dangerous. Yet, the entire structure of the NY Times piece seems to want to put the blame on a website. And, on Section 230.

But, as the article itself noted, the existence of the site in question is due to other sites removing it. It apparently was a response to Reddit shutting down a forum that discussed suicide:

It came online after Reddit shut down a group where people had been sharing suicide methods and encouraging self-harm. Reddit prohibited such discussion, as did Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. Serge wrote days after the new site opened that the two men had started working on it because they “hated to see the community disperse and disappear.” He assured users that “this isn’t our first rodeo and we know how to keep the website safe.”

It seems notable that Section 230's encouragement for websites to determine on their own what content they find acceptable and what content they do not, resulted in these major sites -- Reddit, Facebook, Twitter and "other platforms" -- not allowing such a discussion to happen on their websites. And yet... this separate community still formed. That should be notable, but the NY Times piece completely brushes by it. The fact is that people will form communities around such things. It is human nature. Indeed, it could be argued that if such communities had been allowed on places like Reddit, where they could more directly and easily be monitored by experts and professionals, there might be more opportunity to intervene and to help troubled individuals.

Instead, by continually banning such communities, the end result is that they move to ever darker places online, where it is harder and harder to monitor them, and where it's more likely that unhelpful people begin to exert more and more power over those sites. As we've discussed before (also in relation to a NY Times article!), so much of these kinds of attacks on the internet are really just people upset that the internet is shining light on larger societal problems that have not been fixed -- including those around mental health. It seems like a better system would be one designed to try to figure out ways to intervene in sites like the one the NY Times covers, and look for ways in which professionals could help guide those who need real help to the kinds of resources they actually need.

Instead, it's just victimization all the way down, with everyone looking to point the blame finger, and no one looking to fix the underlying problem. They seem to think if only this website is taken offline (despite the fact it was a response to other sites shutting down communities) then, magically, communities of people exploring how to kill themselves will disappear. That's not how it works.

But, of course, once the NY Times has created the moral panic, grandstanding politicians leap in to fluff it up even more -- not noting that this article alone almost certainly drove way more attention to the website than it had received in the past.

Just weeks after the NY Times told so many people where to go to learn about how to kill themselves, the same NY Times reporters announced triumphantly that Congress is on the job of investigating the site. Are they looking to fund more efforts to help deal with mental health issues? Of course not! Are they looking at ways to help guide troubled individuals to better, more helpful resources? What, are you a communist or something? No, Congress wants to punish this website and anyone else who promotes it (except, of course, for the NY Times, which only wrote a giant article about the site, telling people how to find it).

Responding to a New York Times investigation of the site published this month, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Monday released a bipartisan statement requesting briefings from search engines, web-hosting companies and other tech companies whose services might have been leveraged by the suicide site.

“It is imperative that companies take the threat of such sites seriously and take appropriate steps to mitigate harm,” said the statement from the panel, led by Representative Frank J. Pallone Jr., Democrat of New Jersey.

A representative for Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, told The Times last week that the company had altered its search engine to lower the ranking of the site, which has been linked to a trail of deaths. On Monday, Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, sent a letter to Google and Bing asking the companies to fully remove the suicide site from their search results — a step further than either search engine was willing to take.

On Tuesday, Representative Lori Trahan, Democrat of Massachusetts, along with six other House members, wrote to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland asking what options the Justice Department had for investigating the site and its founders and what steps lawmakers could take to allow for a prosecution. Noting that other countries had taken steps to restrict access to the site, the lawmakers also asked about removing it from search results in the United States.

Look how proud they are of what they've set in action -- without any recognition of how none of this actually helps and how much they themselves contributed to the promotion of the site. This is how the media creates a moral panic.

It would be great if we saw politicians respond to this by focusing on the underlying problem -- but why do that when you can just randomly try to blame everyone's favorite bogeyman, "big tech."

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: assisted suicide, blame, congress, doj, frank pallone, liability, lori trahan, merrick garland, moral panic, search, section 230, suicide
Companies: ny times


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 9:40am

    Politicians love to “treat” symptoms without thinking about treating (or discovering) their root cause.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 10:28am

      Re:

      Just like the drug companies and medical conditions.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Pixelation, 6 Jan 2022 @ 10:35am

      Re:

      What better way to appear relevant without doing anything worthwhile?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That One Guy (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 1:19pm

      Re:

      Finding and addressing the underlying problem not only takes work it might upset people/companies by pointing out some things that are much easier to just brush under the rug, like say the stigmatization and lack of availability of mental health care, the solution of which might involve the dreaded socialism.

      No no no, much easier and safer to just issue a statement and/or press conference about how you're Doing Something and then blame other people when it doesn't work.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      BernardoVerda (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 2:22pm

      Re:

      Besides, the solution is simple, and obvious.
      Just pass a new law, against committing suicide.
      Make sure the penalties are severe enough to really hurt.
      Problem solved.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Max, 6 Jan 2022 @ 4:42pm

      Re:

      ...so they're basically pretty much doing exactly what medical doctors do? Huh, go figure...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:47pm

      Re:

      The reason for that is simple - real problems require real solutions, and the nature of those rarely change. Poverty, exploitation, prejudice, etc. are boring things to talk about, and they require hard long term planning that never makes a good soundbite. Voters, unfortunately, don't really pay attention to such things, and so a politician who comes out pretending to "do something" about a specific problem will always get votes ahead of the person who addresses the problem with a real solution that doesn't make a good soundbite. Then, if such a person does get voted in, they'll be voted out because they didn't miraculously implement the changes planned over decades in the space of a single term of office.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 7 Jan 2022 @ 4:22am

      Re:

      "Politicians love to “treat” symptoms without thinking about treating (or discovering) their root cause."

      Root causes are expensive, complex and require persistent treatment.

      Far simpler just to prescribe some aspirin.

      If you are a successful politician you may have picked the proper base to address - the one happier with the aspirin providing the appearance of relief than with the idea they'll have to vote you in for two terms more and wait for that time until you provide the result.

      If you're a successful and hard-working politician you may have picked a base sufficiently educated and patient so as to appreciate a quick fix is never a solution.

      And if you're a grifter your base will be happy enough as soon as you can point the finger at some random minority and tell them "those guys" are to blame for all their ills...and they'll cheerfully self-medicate on grievance, forgetting all their daily woes.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    me, 6 Jan 2022 @ 9:49am

    When a paper manufactures the news its no longer a news agency

    Its the problem, that, and fuck their paywall!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 1:59pm

      Re: When a paper manufactures the news its no longer a news agen

      What paywall? Was I supposed to stop blocking their cookies or enable some scripts to see some kind of a paywall?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 9:55am

    Use Section 230 to take the New York Times off line for creating moral panics...problem solved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ceyarrecks (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:01am

    Pride, indeed.

    "Look how proud they are,..." not for the fact of the recent action, but that was their condition to begin with.
    Hating to SEE that there are problems within Humanity (that they themselves share) they would rather "kill their brother" instead of acknowledging where the problem actually lies.
    No surprise,... Nothing new, eh?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:09am

    pouts no one ever checks my submissions grumble grumble

    It was very nice to see the reporters on PBS News Hour trying to tap dance around actually saying 230 & talking about the unnamed law that allows these evil evil evil people to tell others how to commit suicide. (It was also cute how they were pointing out that they weren't naming the website while it seems they did elsewhere)

    The heart wrenching story of a family who lost their son to suicide, they didn't know he was suicidal even his best friend didn't know.
    Of course they only briefly mentioned the illness the son was dealing with.
    Imagine if you ate & then were doubled over in massive pain every single time.
    Imagine how many doctors tell you there is nothing that can be done.
    Imagine how people in chronic pain stop being truthful about how they are feeling because they get tired of "helpful" people irritating them even more.

    But still it was the website that caused it to happen, there is no way someone dealing with chronic pain with no hope of things ever getting better, who can't eat without ending up in massive pain would consider ending it all without asking permission of everyone around them. o_O

    google "Why a website with explicit directions for suicide remains active" and see the episode for yourself.
    (why yes I have given up on trying to post links)

    That thing I've described where humans spend more time making sure the blame is properly assigned & attacked while ignoring the actual problems.
    Lets close the website & it will end suicide.
    We can declare job done & move on.
    We don't need to tackle the very real problems of no mental health resources to help people in crisis.
    We don't need to do anything but close that website & go back to telling people suffering to just buck up.
    google "robot hugs helpful advice"

    Finding fault is super easy anyone can do it...
    pity that those who find the fault never manage to find solutions.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
      identicon
      This Just In!, 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:28am

      Re:

      Man Who Constantly Calls Politicians Incompetent Grandstanding Liars Asks Those Same Politicians To Solve Issue He Cares Passionately About

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:51am

        Re: Re:

        Man Who Constantly Calls Politicians Incompetent Grandstanding Liars Asks Those Same Politicians To Start Doing Their Jobs.

        What a crazy concept!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
          identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:57am

          Re: Re: Re:

          TAC’s constant comments make it clear that he thinks that they can’t do their jobs, or any jobs. It’s like a stand-up routine from the 1990s where the comedian can get easy laughs & accolades by calling all politicians corrupt.

          Also, I think TAC secretly relishes the inaction, because that means he doesn’t have to put the work into find something else to incessantly bitch about in a clichéd manner.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 12:21pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            i think you are projecting, and by that, i mean "full of shit".

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 12:27pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            And yet the comment you are complaining about had no comments about politicians.

            Are you okay?
            Do you smell burning toast?

            If you don't like what I have to say, its really really easy to identify posts I make... I'm the one with the trendy avatar, and then you can skip reading them & just assume what I said matches what your imagination told you I would say.

            In the meantime still waiting for where I called out politicians in this one so chop chop invent that shit.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 10:01pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            TAC’s constant comments make it clear that he thinks that they can’t do their jobs, or any jobs.

            He's not nearly the only one. Plenty of people think that politicians are mostly there to be a mouthpiece and accept campaign contributions without effecting the change they keep demanding for, or insist has to happen. This isn't new or unique to the post-Internet age, so... why the need to engage in apologism on the behalf of politicians?

            I think TAC secretly relishes the inaction, because that means he doesn’t have to put the work into find something else to incessantly bitch about in a clichéd manner.

            Ah, yes, the "If you're not a part of the solution you must be a part of the problem" argument. Because that obviously isn't a worn out trope meant to stifle disagreement, just like the "you have to be the change you want to see" cop-out. It does beg the question - why do you feel the need to lay yourself down for politicians who provably aren't achieving the results they should be?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            PaulT (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:49pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            I'm not sure if you need stop taking drugs or start, but you're hallucinating again as I suggest you take whatever measures are required.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 12:23pm

        Re: Re:

        blinks slowly

        And here in rereading what I posted I was skewering the reporters at the NYT and News Hour for this bullshit.

        Please to highlight where I went after politicians in this one.

        Or did you just skip reading what I actually said and filled it in with what you imagined I would say?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 11:24am

    Welcome to Techdirt, where all politicians (except Saint Ron Wyden) are grandstanders, every newspaper creates “moral panics” nonstop, and those same politicians that get proclaimed as grandstanding and useless are asked to solve societal problems without touching the Internet, even as the Internet has become a part of modern society and helps exacerbate and create societal problems.

    Techdirt’s track record on issues like this, and on acting like people who goaded others into committing suicide should face no legal consequences whatsoever, is galling. People here on TD would unironically write shit like this without a second thought.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 12:09pm

      Re:

      Can you respond to any of the points actually raised in the article? Or would that undermine the crux of your argument here?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 12:27pm

      This Just in!

      Antidirt's off their meds and hallucinating again.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 10:23pm

      Re:

      Techdirt’s track record on issues like this, and on acting like people who goaded others into committing suicide should face no legal consequences whatsoever, is galling

      As someone who was relentlessly bullied in childhood, it exasperates me whenever topics like these get brought up. Yes, I'd prefer to see bullies get punished. No, I don't think going after websites instead of the individual end users is meaningful, the same way I hesitate to say that suing schools is an effective method of stopping bullying. Realistically all it does is humiliate the victim even further by painting them as an overly sensitive wimp that uses a scattershot approach to litigation to solve their life problems.

      Look, no one is saying that goading someone into suicide isn't scummy as fuck, but "we'll look into it" isn't even a meaningful response. It's a handwave. Which politicians and the media have been known to do, particularly when such topics are involved, and happen to do so often especially if it means being able to chant "Section 230 must die".

      People here on TD would unironically write shit like this without a second thought.

      I think it's funny that you have to resort to a comment written on another site to prove a point about a completely different website. More tellingly, on a thread that contains another snide remark about this one.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Toom1275 (profile), 7 Jan 2022 @ 1:12am

        Re: Re:

        It's useful to note that both "House of Propane" and "BurntToShreds" are well-known to be moronic trolls who have never spouted off anything of value there.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2022 @ 4:02am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Clearly I haven't been reading the threads they shit on because those usernames don't ring a bell, but it's funny to see dumbass trolls feed off each other and not in the symbiotic "blue sucks off Hamilton sucking off antidirt sucking off John smith" sort of way for once. Almost as funny as some asshole trying to concern-troll by highlighting one specific reply on a thread that's half a year old which didn't even bring up Techdirt and expecting people to not put two and two together by reading the original thread.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Toom1275 (profile), 7 Jan 2022 @ 12:32pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            House of Propane is just your average smoothbrained right-wing shitposter, a dime a dozen.

            BurnttoShreds's position on Section 230 is "proudly ignorant."
            Counter his rotbrained horseshit with facts and law, and he'll stamp his little feet in impotent rage and bluster, but he's never been able to muster anything more substantial than baseless ad-hominem like you linked.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2022 @ 2:50am

      Re: Basement news alert This is BNN!

      Blueballs is still an ignorant motherfucker.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 12:47pm

    Question: when is it moral to prevent someone from ending their own life?

    If your answer requires less than a day of thinking through the ramifications, the door is on your left.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    That One Guy (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 1:46pm

    'Look at this problem! No don't try to solve it, just look!'

    So... is anyone still pretending that the NYT just 'coincidentally' keeps writing blatant 230 hit-pieces, or has this happened enough times that it's acceptable now to admit that it's intentional and not just 'poor reporting' that keeps happening?

    On a more specific note if any of those involved actually wanted to do something about suicides maybe they should look into why people might decide that they're better off dead and do something about that. Perhaps some super radical steps like working to remove the social stigma surrounding mental healthcare, making healthcare easier and more affordable to access, just absolutely bonkers ideas like that...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      That Anonymous Coward (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 1:56pm

      Re: 'Look at this problem! No don't try to solve it, just look!'

      no no no, its all because of the website talking about suicide.
      13 Reasons Why made kids kill themselves because it was trendy, not because of anything else.

      We can't discuss it because to even mention it is to plant the idea in the minds of children.

      (check out the PBS News Hour coverage I sort linked, you can almost see the reporter smirking when talking about the law that protects the site but never says 230)

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 2:05pm

    New York Times has done worse than this

    https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/26/us/mimi-groves-jimmy-galligan-racial-slurs.html

    When wave after wave of coronavirus has reduced the U.S. to a Mad Max world, when China sends peacekeeping troops to try to rebuild the continent, when dozens New York Times writers stand in line to kneel down with their shaved heads and use their last breaths to beg that their families to be spared the bullet fee ... it's not going to be hard at all to tell the AI watching you that no, you don't feel bad about what is happening to these imperialist stooges.

    That's probably a fortunate thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Stephen T. Stone (profile), 6 Jan 2022 @ 6:02pm

      How is the New York Times responsible for the actions of the student in that article, again?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 6 Jan 2022 @ 10:52pm

        Re:

        I didn't say they were responsible in any way at all. However, if a student happens to use a single word, copying literature sources, out of a misguided notion that what you are allowed to do is not related to the color of your skin, that is a certain very small issue. If another student finds it "hateful" and decides to bully the first student as an expression of anti-hatefulness, that's a certain small issue. But if a newspaper takes exactly the same hateful words, and disseminates them to a national audience in order to cause trouble and pick quarrels, is that a large problem? I would say no out of a belief in free speech, but what do I say when the newspaper doesn't believe in free speech but wants to stamp it out with vicarious bullying and mind-numbingly stupid editorials against freedom of expression on a near daily basis? At some point it's time to put your shoes on your head and walk out of there, isn't it?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Stephen T. Stone (profile), 8 Jan 2022 @ 1:34pm

          what do I say when the newspaper doesn't believe in free speech

          You point out exactly where in that article anyone comes out against free speech⁠—either in spirit or in deed⁠—so I can decide whether to take your side on the matter. That would be a great start.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2022 @ 2:51am

      Re: Poor low energy basement troll

      Sad and pathetic deflection even for you.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 7 Jan 2022 @ 12:01pm

      Re: New York Times has done worse than this

      I'm from a country where the ardent defenders of the status quo actually defend the CCP and even I think you're reaching just a wee bit too hard here.

      Also, yellow journalism doesn't exactly equate to China starting an invasion to the USA, dipshit. That just means Rupert Murdoch has truly despoiled journalism.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Discord

The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...

Loading...
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.