There’s Nothing ‘Casual’ About Telling People To Kill Themselves Online

Content warning: This article contains explicit discussion of suicide, abuse, and harassment.

Earlier this month, on the Los Angeles Review of Books’ blog The Philosophical Salon, cultural critic Slavoj Zizek took on “transgenderism” in an essay titled, “The Sexual Is Political.” In the piece, Zizek rambles through several dubious points, accusing transgender activists of seeking to abolish gender entirely and making “slippery slope” comments about human-animal marriage that seem to come right off of the 2016 Republican platform. Trans folks around the web were understandably incensed and made no bones about it; one writer, an agender person named Lane, wrote a 32 bullet-point summary of the article and their disgust at having consumed it. Lane’s post was shared widely on social media, gaining its own quiet acclaim before settling down, as commentary in the digital age tends to do.

But a week later, someone who’d seen the article through one of its 81 Facebook shares couldn’t let it go and wrote an off-the-cuff message to Lane: “Just stopped in to encourage you to drink a bullet. Be you, son!”

If you’re a certain type of person, you might be horrified by such a casual call for a perfect stranger to commit suicide over something so inconsequential — a blog post. If you’re a frequent traveler of the old information superhighway though, you’re probably wondering, “Why is this news?”

It’s certainly true that people telling one another to kill themselves online is common; when I searched for the phrase “kill yourself” on Twitter, the list refreshed three times in a minute with calls for someone else to do the deed. But though its commonness might lead some to believe this form of harassment is relatively harmless, telling someone to commit suicide is a form of verbal abuse that has real consequences, especially for vulnerable, marginalized people like Lane.

People can be told to kill themselves online for any reason, whether it’s wearing a man bun, “judging music based on sales,” being a “fat pathetic fuck,” or just being the official Twitter account for EA’s upcoming video game NHL 17. Other apparently valid rationale for being told to kill yourself include writing open letters to Peter Thiel, talking about not being able to get a job, and comparing rapper Lil Yachty to Nas. These examples are only the ones I cribbed from Twitter, posted less than an hour before I started looking.

Although its roots are shrouded in internet apocrypha, these blasé, mocking calls to commit suicide can be traced back to early IRC chatrooms, where the abbreviation for kill yourself, “KYS,” was most likely coined to streamline the process. The earliest dated record of “KYS” is from Urban Dictionary in 2003, and it’s clearly since become part and parcel of expressing displeasure on the internet. But again, many seem to approach the phrase with a stunning lack of concern.

For example, the Twitter account kyseveryhour is a bot that tells users to, as advertised, kill themselves once an hour. Meanwhile, in the pit of gleeful abuse that is 4chan, users popularized the “an hero” meme in 2006 after a grammatically dubious MySpace post mourning the loss of one Mitchell Henderson began circulating on boards like /b/, 4chan’s “random” board which has become an infamous breeding ground for racism, abuse, and harassment since its inception in 2003. To this day, posters who express feelings of depression, anxiety, or who just have poor taste in anime are regularly encouraged to “become an hero” by faceless demons around the world; some even post in search of encouragement to end their own lives.

Although anyone can receive “casual” abuse of this nature online, it’s worth talking about which people experience it the most. One study estimated that women online face up to 27 times as much harassment as men. Meanwhile, LGBT youth are three times as likely as their cis and hetero peers to experience cyberbullying, according to a study from GLSEN. It’s not hard to put the data together: if you’re a non-male identified trans person, you’re in the demographic most likely to be told by internet randos to put a gun in your mouth.

None of this is news to Lane, of course. While they once posted selfies in commonly used Tumblr tags, they stopped, “after a few of my photos started going around on troll blogs where people left comments telling me to kill myself,” Lane told me in an interview. They added that the trolls also used “one obscure movie reference I later figured out was them saying I should be sexually assaulted.” Lane said, “[They] were photos I’d taken the night before going to my first Pride parade, of the outfit I was going to wear for all of Pride weekend. I was already pretty nervous, and that made me paranoid that [my girlfriend] and I would be physically unsafe the next day.”

While Lane’s biggest fear right now may be their own physical safety and that of their partner — “since she’s a target of transmisogyny and I’m not, there’s generally more harm they could do to her than to me” — that might not have been the case a few years ago. “I haven’t experienced ideations directly resulting from harassment, but I’ve struggled with my mental health since I was in my early teens, so being told to kill myself hits a very personal place for me,” they say.

It’s a sentiment with which trans-identified people from across the spectrum can identify. According to statistics from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, “51% of those who were verbally harassed” — or worse — for being transgender or gender nonconforming while they were enrolled in school reported having attempted suicide. Though only 1.6% of the currently living U.S. population has attempted suicide, 41% of trans or gender nonconforming survey respondents reported suicide attempts at some point in their lives. “Thoughts of suicide are always present,” wrote one survey respondent who was unable to obtain gender reassignment surgery. Another reported, “[m]y suicide attempt had a lot to do with the fact that I felt hopeless and alone in regards to my gender identity.”

All this is to say that when you tell someone to kill themselves as a joke, there’s a very real chance they’ll seriously consider your advice. It doesn’t take much to set someone off who’s already at risk. Even reading about suicide can have a grim effect, as the NTDS organizers saw firsthand; as noted in the text, researchers were hesitant about including the question at all for fear of “triggering or re-triggering” suicidal ideation among participants, fears which were borne out by several distressed respondents.

Of course, as Lane points out, none of this will strike a chord with the people who need to hear it most: the internet commenters and trolls. “I don’t know if there’s anything I’d say to them other than some expletives, because I feel like there’s a point at which appealing to someone’s sense of compassion and humanity doesn’t work.

“Saying, ’Please stop, you’re hurting me’ only has an impact to someone who cares whether or not they’re hurting people,” they said. The people who bear the most guilt for normalizing this devil-may-care form of online abuse are too wrapped up in maintaining the illusion that their targets have no value to internalize the reality of what they’ve done.

But maybe speaking up about this form of casual verbal abuse can help those who are suicidal. Maybe shining a light on this now-ubiquitous part of internet culture will help people who, like me, have ever found themselves staring into a mirror and wondering if they should just take a mulligan on this life and hope for a more fitting body next go-round. Because if we stop telling each other to die in a fire and use that energy instead to help people who actually want to die, who knows how many souls we might save? Maybe along the way, we’ll manage to save our own, too.

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Lead image: Unsplash

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