Europe

French Periscope death stirs social media safety fears

Egly station south of Paris where Oceane took her own life Image copyright AP
Image caption "Oceane", 19, died at Egly station south of Paris on Tuesday afternoon

France has opened an investigation into the suicide of a 19-year-old woman who broadcast her death on the video-streaming app, Periscope.

During the live stream the woman, who called herself Oceane, said she had been raped, before taking her own life on the tracks at Egly station 25 miles (40km) south of Paris.

Periscope, a popular social media app, has been used to chronicle unsuitable content before, including crimes and violence. Oceane's death has led to a fresh debate in France about how to regulate and protect young users of social media.

Woman 'live-streamed her suicide on Periscope'

It is a sad consequence that this young woman, who wanted her death witnessed by so many strangers, is now the subject of such intense scrutiny. Her phone examined by police; her last moments spooled back from video surveillance cameras at the scene; her story, her life, her remains pored over by investigators, politicians, journalists, and of course the social media audience she pulled into her own death.

It's like putting a Ferrari in the hands of a five-year-old. Obviously it's going to slam into a wall"

Justine Atlan, e-Enfance
Periscope

Amid the shock at her death in France, those commentators and journalists are beginning to unpick the role Periscope might have played in her decision, and whether more could have been done to help her.

Many make the point that, just like a knife or a hammer, it is not social media itself that is dangerous, but how it is used.

Others say the medium itself, where the goal is to accumulate friends and followers, encourages exhibitionism.

Twitter, which owns Periscope, said it had removed the content but did not comment on individual accounts.

Justine Atlan, president of e-Enfance which campaigns for more child protection online, is in no doubt that sites like Periscope are dangerous, and asks whether Oceane would have taken her own life if she had not been able to stream it live.

"It's like putting a Ferrari in the hands of a five-year-old," she told radio station France Info. "Obviously it's going to slam into a wall. What happened is extremely serious and, unfortunately, extremely predictable."

Image copyright Canal+
Image caption Oceane's death has highlighted difficult questions about how France monitors social media

Xavier Pommereau, a psychiatrist at Bordeaux hospital, agreed that sites such as Periscope could possibly push someone to commit suicide, because "streaming amplifies the resonance of a phenomenon".

Another psychologist, Michael Stora, believes part of the problem is the responsibility placed on the person's friends or followers on social media apps, otherwise known as moderation by your peers.

"On Facebook you can say 'I want to die' and you ask your friends to intervene and become psychologists," he told Atlantico website. "We don't talk about it much, but there are a huge number of people who talk about their morbid thoughts, even if they don't necessarily act."

'Emergency button'

Fabrice Mattatia, an expert in digital trust and a former government adviser on digital issues, says the lines of responsibility are sometimes hard to discern.

"Internet users who watched the events could possibly face legal action for not assisting a person in danger, but the intention of the subject must be clear and the spectators must have time to realise the intention and call the police."

Limiting the spread of these videos, and with it the incentive to use them in this way, is one way to curb the threat, says Fabrice Mattatia. But websites and apps also need to develop alert systems that either do not exist or are little known.

"Periscope has an email address for emergencies, it seems, but do users know it? Is it easy to find?"

That is the conclusion reached by the well-known digital magazine Numerama, which says sites like Periscope urgently need an "emergency button" to allow users to send information to the police and emergency services.

"This issue emerged when people started filming attacks or other crimes on Periscope," it says. "It's all the more urgent for suicide cases like this."

Monitoring what happens on social media is a tricky question for France, in the fight again terrorism as well as in cases of crime, or personal tragedy.

"I've heard young people say very disturbing things in the name of freedom of speech," says Michael Stora, "but freedom only exists within a framework, and here there's no longer a framework - we are in a crazy place."


Are you affected by this?

Samaritans

The Samaritans helpline is available 24 hours a day for anyone in the UK struggling to cope. It provides a safe place to talk where calls are completely confidential.

Phone for free: 116 123

Email: jo@samaritans.org

Visit the Samaritans website

Survivors' Trust

The Survivors' Trust provide support and signposting for women, men and children who are survivors of rape, sexual violence or childhood sexual abuse.

Phone: 0808 801 0818

Papyrus

Papyrus offer support, practical advice and information to young people considering suicide and can also offer help and advice if you're concerned about someone you know.

Phone: 0800 068 41 41

SOS Amitie

In France, SOS Amitie offers a similar service to the Samaritans.


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