Influencer livestreams suicide on Douyin, prompting questions about baiting crowd and app’s prevention efforts

Society & Culture

After a young influencer’s death was broadcast on social media, people questioned the effectiveness of Douyin's suicide prevention efforts.

luo xiao maomao
Douyin user Luo Xiao Maomao @罗小猫猫 durig her last livestream

Content Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.

If you or anyone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there are people who want to help: In the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-8255. In China, the Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center can be reached at at 800-810-1117 or 010-8295-1332. Also, there is a list of suicide and emergency helpline around the world with links to more detailed hotlines.

On the evening of October 14, Douyin user Luo Xiao Maomao @罗小猫猫 filmed the last livestream of her life. The prior afternoon, the fashion influencer issued an ominous warning to her 760,000 fans on the platform (which is the Chinese version of TikTok), revealing in a video that she had been battling severe depression of late and had reached her lowest point.

“This is probably my last video. Thank you all for everything,” she said. “If you want to know why I said that, come watch my livestream later.”

During the livestream that night, some 1,200 people witnessed the young vlogger drink what she said was pesticide. As they debated in the comments if the influencer was really trying to kill herself or she was putting on a performance for clout, Luo Xiao Maomao grabbed her throat and gagged uncontrollably. 

The 25-year-old vlogger then turned off her webcam and called an ambulance. The next day, she was pronounced dead.

On the Chinese internet, news of the tragedy has led to an outpouring of shock and anger. Many wondered if the woman’s death could have been prevented if Douyin had intervened when she expressed suicidal ideations. Others argued that viewers who egged her on during the livestream should be held accountable for their actions. 

A jeering crowd

According to Douyin user Doudou Rongyi E @豆豆容易饿, a close friend of Luo Xiao Maomao, she had been a target of hate since she started dating Zhào Ruòlín 赵若霖, a college basketball player who has over 2 million followers on Douyin — many of whom are zealous female fans, who were apparently envious of their relationship. After they broke up in the summer, Luo Xiao Maomao had been trying to reconcile. She told her followers that last week’s livestream was supposed to be another attempt   to manipulate Zhao back into a relationship by threatening suicide.

But as the livestream went on, Doudou Rongyi E said that while many viewers pleaded with her friend to not kill herself, some challenged her to drink the poison,, and called the situation “fake.” One person urged her: “Just go ahead and do it. Stop wasting everyone’s time.” While they watched the woman struggling to breathe after she consumed the liquid, their chat comments ranged from “Oh, my God” to “Good for you.”

Many of the comments have since been removed from the vlogger’s page. Two days after the incident, Douyin, which counts more than 600 million daily active users, issued a statement stressing its stance against bullying and harassment on its platform. Accompanying the statement is a list of users who have been blocked for violating Douyin’s policies on hate speech. One of them is a viewer of Luo Xiao Maomao’s livestream, who wrote “Haha, you really did it” as the influencer gulped down the pesticide. 

A baiting crowd — the phenomenon of a group of individuals unifying their aggression toward a complete stranger in situations like threatened suicide — is nothing new in China. In 2018, when 19-year-old Lǐ Yìyì 李奕奕, who had fought for a year to have her claims of sexual assault taken seriously, contemplated suicide on a building ledge, a crowd of a few hundred people gathered in the street below. Some actively enticed her to leap to her death by applauding, cheering, and clapping. After Li leapt to her death, several onlookers were arrested for being “disrespectful to life.” In a similar case last year, a man in Henan Province was given a nine-day detention for encouraging a suicidal woman to jump off a bridge while filming the whole incident. 

In reaction to Luo Xiao Maomao’s suicide, many internet users criticized those who urged the influencer to end her life during the livestream, calling them “cold-blooded murderers” who indirectly caused her death. “The livestream was her final cry for help, but these people are pure monsters. This sickens me to the core,” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese).

Suicide prevention efforts on Douyin

Meanwhile, many of Douyin’s critics questioned if the service has done enough to enforce its anti-harassment measures and to help users struggling with suicidal ideation. Although the app allows users to report “harmful content” that encourages people to commit suicide or self-harm, and flag users who engage in “dangerous acts” like hurting themselves, there seems to be a delay in action when it comes to actually getting help to people when they need it the most.

In Luo Xiao Maomao’s case, Zhihu user Ayuan Laoshi 阿源老师 revealed on October 17 that after watching her video in which she teased the livestream, he immediately reported the post to Douyin, hoping that the service would provide suicide prevention resources to the woman. But the app’s moderators determined that the video wasn’t in violation of their community guidelines and didn’t warrant their intervention. About 12 hours later, after the livestream ended, Douyin overturned its original judgment, but it was too late.