Warning: This article contains references to suicide which could act as triggers to some readers.
On Sunday, TikTok was invaded by a graphic video of 33-year-old veteran Ronnie McNutt dying by suicide. McNutt broadcasted his death on Facebook Live on August 31 and the footage has since found its way onto other social media platforms.
Since this weekend, TikTok has been working to remove the footage. In a statement, TikTok told Refinery29 that its systems and moderation teams "have been detecting and removing these clips" as well as "banning accounts that repeatedly try to upload clips." This morning, warnings against these clips still linger online.
In this disturbing circumstance, TikTok's vertical scroll betrays its user: When you scroll on either your Follow feed or your For You Page, you swipe up to go from one video to the next, with each video auto-playing as soon as it's on your screen. This means that on Sunday, as McNutt’s video began to appear on For You pages, people were often halfway through the video before they got a chance to swipe away. TikTokers are advising each other to keep a lookout for videos that show a bearded man sitting at a desk and warning of the graphic content that might follow. Some sneaky edits are made to fool you into watching the graphic content by first showing you innocuous content like cute animals and then cutting to the death.
YouTube "tea" channel and gossip reporter Spill Sesh is one of many users who has been open about avoiding TikTok altogether until the video is eradicated from the platform. On TikTok, the #ronniemcnutt hashtag has 15.6 million views and has emerged as a makeshift space for people on TikTok to warn each other and process the triggering video.
Under the hashtag, you'll find TikToks of people reacting to the video's virality, wondering why some went out of their way to spread it to other platforms. You'll also find TikToks that aim to humanize McNutt by showing screenshots of his mom's Facebook status (which reads: "I hope every one of you that are getting your 'kicks' from watching the video of my son ending his life rot in HELL!!") alongside pictures of him pulled from his social media profiles.
These all seem to be part of the second wave of reactions to this video, though, while the first wave of reactions turned McNutt's death into a meme. TikTok has since suppressed videos that make light of McNutt's death (because they violate community guidelines), but there is a trail of people reacting to how so many turned it into a joke. Some people made him their profile picture, others reposted it as a cruel prank, some commented under people's reaction to brag about how unaffected they were by it. A real man's death seems to have had an unfortunate overlap with the part of TikTok that glorifies serial killers and dreams up abduction fantasies.
The viral spread of trauma porn isn't unique to TikTok. It's not even unique to the internet. It is, however, an unproductive and often harmful way of processing trauma.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.