'You can’t escape a world of despair': Ian Russell blames online life of daughter Molly, 14, for her suicide

The court was also shown Pinterest content linked to depression and self-hatred viewed by Molly, and posts that discouraged depressed people from speaking out

'You can’t escape a world of despair': Ian Russell blames online life of daughter Molly, 14, for her suicide
Ian Russell (R) told the court he went through some of his daughter Molly's (L) web history after her death (BBC News/Good Morning Britain/YouTube screenshots)
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Warning: This article includes comments about suicide and depression that could be traumatic for some readers. Discretion is advised.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM: The father of Molly Russell, who took her life at the age of 14 in 2017 after searching for suicide methods online, has described how his daughter accessed material from the “ghetto of the online world” before her death and warned that children were still in danger from content on social media platforms like Instagram. Ian Russell, 59, who has become a prominent campaigner for internet safety, was present at his daughter's inquest on Tuesday, September 20, where he branded the grisly posts 'a world of despair' that you 'cannot escape'. 

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He also pointed at the algorithm which continues to suggest similar content based on the search history of a user. Russell told the North London Coroner's Court that some of the 'hideous' posts his daughter viewed on Instagram would inflict self-harm, anxiety, depression, and suicide. Some of the posts read, "Who would like a suicidal girl?" and "So many stars in the sky tonight, who would really notice if one goes out?", according to Daily Mail

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“It’s just the bleakest of worlds,” he told the court. “You are surrounded by images that show this bleak world. It’s a world I don’t recognize. It’s a ghetto of the online world that once you fall into it, the algorithm means you can’t escape it and keeps recommending more content, you can’t escape it.” The proceedings over the next two weeks will likely determine if the social media algorithms played a major part in the teen's death. 

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The court was also shown Pinterest content linked to depression and self-hatred viewed by Molly, as well as posts that discouraged depressed people from speaking out. Pinterest, an online pinboard, also continued to send emails to Molly after her death promoting depressive content such as '18 depression pins you might like' and 'new ideas for you in depression'. How his daughter knew  "how to get into the state" prior to her death was questioned by Russell, adding "Whatever steps have been taken by social media companies, it's clearly not enough." 

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Russell said "This is just a small sample that we saw which was enough for me to stop, as I could feel myself becoming depressed to an extent. The process as I see it is one of normalization. You might think yourself a remote individual but you can join their club. It is a place of discouraging getting help and encouraging further self-harm. I remember seeing videos such as 'it only takes a second' by way of encouraging that as an action, for example. I could see that that sentiment, that feeling within her must have come from the vast content in the posts we found." 

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Russell criticized the tech companies for being sluggish and for failing to develop protection for its users. "Some of the most global platforms in the world are still nowhere near safe enough," he said. "The charity Ripple has installed a plug-in for a browser that can direct you towards support services when searching certain terms. These charities are making bigger inroads than any tech companies and I don't quite understand why they don't move faster." 

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The court heard how Molly was engaging with Instagram posts up to 130 times per day in the months leading up to her death. Molly was also apparently an “avid fan” of Salice Rose, who has 15 million followers on Instagram and has talked regularly about suicide and depression. Molly also followed a Twitter account that “displays depressing quotes”, the court heard. Molly had drafted an Instagram message wishing a happy birthday to the US rapper Phora, who has struggled with his mental health. The court heard the last social media app accessed by the teenager before she died was Instagram.

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The coroner ordered Meta and Pinterest executives to fly in from the US to give proof about how algorithms used by social media firms keep people glued and may have contributed to Molly's death. Jud Hoffman, Head of Community Operations at Pinterest, and Liz Lagone, Head of Health and Wellbeing Policy at Meta, will give evidence during the inquest, set to last over a week. Russell was taken through a series of social media posts liked by Molly on Instagram prior to her death, which lawyer Oliver Sanders KC described as a “litany of self hate”. Russell’s witness statement also referred to Molly’s YouTube account, which he said contained a “high number of disturbing posts concerning anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide”. Sanders later said the posts saved by Molly on Pinterest were 'romanticizing self harm' which was something for people to 'keep to themselves'.

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Russell responded "Absolutely. Even though I have seen these before, seeing them again still affects me now. And this is just the 5th of September. This is just a fraction of what Molly was seeing on a daily basis." Coroner Andrew Walker then asked Russell if it was fair to describe it as 'a world of despair' to which he replied 'Absolutely'. He told the inquest he and Molly's mother Janet were "definitely shocked how hideous, graphic, harmful it was and concerning that it was readily available on a public platform for people who are 13 and above".   

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The court previously heard how on Twitter, Molly tweeted or retweeted 460 times, liked 4,100 tweets, was following 116 accounts, and had 42 followers. She was a much more active user of Pinterest, with more than 15,000 engagements, including 3,000 saves, in the last six months of her life. Molly did not have a Facebook profile. But in the last six months of her life, she was engaging with Instagram posts about 130 times a day on average. The inquest is expected to last until the end of next week.

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