Arjun Bhardwaj and the Spectacle of Online Suicide

Social Commentary

Arjun Bhardwaj and the Spectacle of Online Suicide

Illustration: Akshita Monga

“Itold u I was hardcore,” declared Brandon Vedas.

The screen glowed with his last coherent words. Vedas had been consuming a cocktail of drugs on a live video stream. The combination and quantity of marijuana and prescription pills that Vedas was washing down with alcohol was “enough to kill Kurt Cobain”, according to his online audience. Still, they egged him on. Users watching him posted messages like, “you p***y”, and “eat more”. So, he did.

Soon after, Brandon Vedas, 21, slipped into a coma and was discovered dead the following morning. The year was 2003 and while his was the first death the world witnessed through live streaming, it certainly wasn’t going to be the last.

“They watched him like they were watching a soap opera,” Brandon’s mother had wept. The dozen or so, anonymous internet “friends” who’d logged on to watch him overdose late in the night, had briefly panicked when he passed out. One even claimed to have dialled 911, but didn’t end up reporting the incident. The users instead engaged in an offhand discussion about who would get to keep the drugs if he really was dead.

Today, almost 14 years later, the discussion on Arjun Bhardwaj’s Facebook wall are of a comparable nature. The 24-year-old livestreamed his suicide, after a short, disturbing tutorial on how to take one’s life: His tips include “write notes to people”, “get drunk”, and “eat bacon pasta”. Bhardwaj’s FB page was memorialised within hours of his death and the bizarre comments on his posts and pictures are similarly devoid of empathy. One of them reads: “Acha hua marr gya…”, an equation of Bhardwaj’s depression with a nuisance. There are those who doubt that he ever had depression because he was a “rich brat” and there are those who treat this obvious cry for help like some sort of a joke, leaving a trail of distasteful memes in the comments.

But Bhardwaj and Vedas seem to have attained the attention in their deaths that they were likely unable to achieve during their lives. In a world where we’ve come to broadcast every banality from our grocery shopping to our commute, the only way left to garner attention, to really stand out from the crowd, is to treat your audience to a little bit of ultraviolence. To treat death – whether your own or someone else’s – as a spectacle.

On the other side of this toxic symbiosis are the viewers. Fifteen hundred people watched Abraham Biggs’ suicide in 2008; frighteningly, half of them urged him to end his life.

While the number of people who watched Bhardwaj’s livestream is yet unknown, this level of violence – whether overt or implied – attracts large numbers: Some of it stems from curiosity, some from a sadistic kind of pleasure. Either way, the death or violence unfolding on your screen has a perverse, unbearable, can’t-look-away quality.

An Ohio teenager, Marina Lolina, was arrested last year for broadcasting her friend being raped, on Periscope. While her lawyer claimed that she recorded the incident to collect “evidence of a crime”, Lolina could clearly be heard giggling in the background – her “documentation” of the incident was later summed up as “caught up in the likes”.

We witnessed an example of the same distressing impulse in the Bhadra video that was shared over a million times. The two medical students in Tamil Nadu, who tossed a harmless stray dog off a rooftop and filmed the hideous act, were completely aware of the reactions they would draw. The infamous video wasn’t shot covertly: The camera is held high, the grinning perpetrator in full view. As the dog hits the concrete and wails in pain, the camera is turned in her direction so that the audience can soak in her suffering. The students were gunning for posterity – no matter how fleeting.

On the other side of this toxic symbiosis are the viewers. Fifteen hundred people watched Abraham Biggs’ suicide in 2008; frighteningly, half of them urged him to end his life. Viewers continued to watch as officials broke down the door and approached a limp body in front of a computer screen, like a macabre event in an online circus. It appeared as if the cloak of anonymity offered by the internet, had encouraged viewers to completely denude themselves of empathy.

A TED talk by Dr Frances Larson uncovers some of the reasons behind the immense popularity of such content. She described the gruesome Islamic State beheading videos as “a global 21st century event… that takes place in our living rooms…” According to her, since viewers aren’t physically present during the executions, there is a sense of detachment while witnessing it on a digital platform.

Thus, thousands flock to Liveleak and Ogrish – websites created in defiance of YouTube’s restrictions – which promise uncensored and explicitly violent content. Here, you will find a large selection of savage killings caught on CCTV, ISIS beheadings, and public suicides. These videos are frequently shared on Reddit, where there are nauseating requests like, “I think we need some more suicide. Particularly if it’s dramatic.”

So obviously, there are plenty out there to satisfy this appeal – where even a step as deeply personally distressing as suicide, turns into an event. People like Arjun Bhardwaj and Abraham Biggs have grown up in an age of virtual validation: If they can’t receive it in life, they will find it in death.