The Social-Media Star and the Suicide

A video depicting a dead body, posted by the popular vlogger Logan Paul, was taken down Tuesday—but only after the damage had already been done.

Logan Paul points
Logan Paul on the red carpet at the 2015 MTV Movie Awards (Phil McCarten / Reuters)

Here is the news: Logan Paul, a social-media star with more than 16 million Instagram followers, recently visited Aokigahara, a dense forest known as the “Sea of Trees” on the northwestern side of Mount Fuji.

Aokigahara is beautiful, but also infamous; for at least a half-century, it has been a popular destination for people to attempt suicide. Soon after entering the forest, Paul encountered a man’s dead body, apparently killed by suicide, and he made it the centerpiece of a nervous video, apparently intended to be humorous, that he posted to YouTube on December 31.

“Yo, are you alive?” Paul shouts at the body, early in the video. “Are you fucking with us?”

The 15-minute video was taken down Tuesday. Since its posting, the familiar cycle of Horrific Internet Content has played out: scathing criticism from all sides; the deletion of the video from YouTube; an apology from Paul (defensive, in writing); a second apology from Paul (tearful, on camera); and finally a comment from YouTube. It would all feel routine if not for the macabre video at the center, which highlights the lack of oversight in the online-fame machine.

First, though, the video itself. Paul is an avid video blogger, and he posts a new video almost daily, but viewers are told straight out that it is something different. “This is not clickbait. This is the most real vlog I’ve ever posted to this channel,” Paul said in an introduction to the video, according to New York Magazine. “I think this definitely marks a moment in YouTube history because I’m pretty sure this has never hopefully happened to anyone on YouTube ever. Now with that said: Buckle the fuck up, because you’re never gonna see a video like this again!”

The video then segues into a lighthearted introduction to Mount Fuji and the forest. But almost as soon as the guide takes Paul and his friends into the forest, they encounter a man’s body.

The New York Times details what happens next:

The face is blurred; the rest is left visible. Mr. Paul and the others react in shock and Mr. Paul urges the guide to call the police.

As a camera pans over the body, which Mr. Paul later says is only about 100 yards away from the parking lot, he describes its condition, and speculates that the death was recent. He apologizes to his viewers and says that suicide, depression, and mental illness are not a joke.

Specifically, he comments on the color of the deceased’s hands, and he addresses “Logang,” his name for his viewers. “Oh no, I’m so sorry,” he says. “This was supposed to be a fun vlog.”

As the group leaves the area where the body was found, Mr. Paul, who has television experience and has trained with comedy troupes, begins to engage in the kinds of behavior most familiar to his viewers: exaggerated reaction shots and nervous laughter. The tone soon becomes more antic as Mr. Paul and the others appear to try to lighten the mood.

Toward the end of the video, Mr. Paul says that his smiling and laughing “is not a portrayal of how I feel about the circumstances,” describing it as his coping mechanism.

The video remained online for about a day. Soon it was being widely decried.

Logan Paul, who is 22, posted his first apology late Monday night, U.S. time. “I’m sorry,” said the first. “I’ve never faced criticism like this before, because I’ve never made a mistake like this before.”

“I didn’t do it for views,” he added. “I get views.”

The second appeared late Tuesday morning Eastern time. A teary Paul faces the camera. “I’ve made a severe and continuous lapse in my judgement, and I don’t expect to be forgiven. I’m simply here to apologize,” he says. “What we came across in the woods that day was obviously unplanned. The reactions you saw on tape were raw, they were unfiltered. None of us knew how to react or how to feel. I should’ve never posted the video.”

By the early afternoon, YouTube had also responded. “Our hearts go out to the family of the person featured in the video. YouTube prohibits violent or gory content posted in a shocking, sensational or disrespectful manner,” said a statement from the company. “If a video is graphic, it can only remain on the site when supported by appropriate educational or documentary information and in some cases it will be age-gated. We partner with safety groups such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to provide educational resources that are incorporated in our YouTube Safety Center.”

Logan Paul may be unfamiliar to some older readers, but over the past few years he has become a major figure in the churning online world that partly defines teen culture nowadays. In November, more than 10,000 people—almost all of them teenagers or teen-adjacent—reportedly showed up to see Logan Paul appear at a mall in Dubai. He and his younger brother, Jake, are global celebrities, but they lack the ubiquity of music or movie celebrity. They’re ubiquitous only on YouTube and other teen-focused corners of the internet that most adults will never visit.

Like many other entertainers, Logan and Jake Paul are famous because they understood a new technology before anyone else. The Pauls gained attention by making six-second videos for the now-defunct platform Vine; their accounts became so well-known that they dropped out of high school and moved to Los Angeles.

Jake, who is 20, was able to roll his social-media success into a starring role on the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark. Logan appeared in The Thinning, a feature-length dystopian film distributed only by YouTube.

But the Paul brothers are also hated in the same way that certain heel-ish pro wrestlers are hated. Logan’s videos often feature Jackass-like pranks and stunts; a rap song featuring both of the Paul brothers is the fourth-most-disliked YouTube video of all time. Last year, other residents of Jake Paul’s L.A. neighborhood tired of his antics and threatened to sue him.

So it’s not hard to see how Paul—who has played off disregard for others as cool and rebellious—could mistake encountering a victim of suicide as a “a moment in YouTube history.”

But there’s little wonder there. Logan Paul’s public performance claims, on its face, to be nonfictional. In fact, as Jonah Bromwich has written for the Times of Jake Paul, “it is virtually impossible to know whether Mr. Paul’s personal drama is authentic. Like the characters on a reality show, the network of YouTube stars in which he exists thrives on soap-opera-style plotlines that may be exaggerated or entirely false.” In encountering a corpse, Paul suddenly found himself in a journalistic role, and he had no idea how to respond. Most U.S. journalists abide by certain recommendations for reporting on suicide, and for good reason: Suicide seems to engender a significant copycat effect; sensationalized press coverage of one victim can prompt other people to make similar attempts. Paul surely did not know about these rules, and in any case he did the opposite of several of them.

The most worrying thing about this episode is not Paul’s cavalier and near-sociopathic handling of the encounter, but the perverse incentives that made him famous. During the day that the video was online, it accumulated more than 6.3 million views. Someone who many American adults had never heard of was able to rack up millions of views within 24 hours for a video depicting a corpse.

There were no gatekeepers to stand in his way, and YouTube itself acted only after the video became news. In every step but the filming of the dead body, this is not the system breaking but the system functioning as intended. And as with the recent discovery of widespread exploitation on “child-safe” parts of YouTube, it points to a dark tendency in today’s engagement-optimized web. As online platforms have pursued engagement to the detriment of everything else, they have come to favor content that dehumanizes us. Meanwhile, the same platforms dominate more and more of teen culture.

People may want to punish Paul’s crassness and disrespect, but he, like every other social-media star, was responding to the incentives we’ve set up. We stuck a smartphone in every 14-year-old’s hand and told them it could make them famous. Little wonder that the kids who won that lottery don’t know when to turn the camera off. Little wonder that before the backlash, Paul’s video was going viral. The internet’s only currency is attention.

An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that YouTube deleted the video. In fact, Logan Paul appears to have removed the video himself. We regret the error.