Logan Paul in the Suicide Forest

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Famous YouTuber Logan Paul stirred up controversy in January for posting a video of himself in Japan's Suicide Forest ("Logan Paul"/coedmagazine.files.wordpress.com)

In January, Logan Paul, a 22-year-old acclaimed YouTuber with roughly 15 million subscribers and, according to Forbes, ranked as YouTube’s fourth richest stars, ignited some controversy and worldwide outrage after posting a vlog online of his tour in Japan, putting YouTube in an awkward bind. Seemingly everyone – celebrities, mental health advocates and other YouTubers – spoke against Paul and YouTube for allowing his video to be uploaded in the first place.  

Without even mentioning the disrespectful attitude he displayed towards the Japanese people during his tour, Paul crossed the line when he carried his obnoxious, over-the-top antics into Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, located just at the base of Mt. Fuji in Japan, which has been infamously referred to as the “Suicide Forest.” This forest is the second most popular place in the world for suicide, next to the Golden Gate Bridge in California. Hundreds of lives have been lost here and the numbers only keep climbing.  

And things only get worse from there. Immediately upon entering the forest, with the intention of camping overnight and claiming an interest in the “haunted aspect” of the forest, Paul and his crew come across the scene of a recent suicide. The victim took his own life just a few hours before Paul’s arrival. Unlike most, who would have instantly walked away and left the area, Paul kept his cameras recording. For him, it was a perfect opportunity to seize the moment.

“I’ve never seen a dead person!” said Paul euphorically, as if discovering some lost or ancient tomb.

“We found a dead person!” said a friend later in the video. “Yup!! What the f***!?” said Paul in return.

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Let’s make something very clear: suicide is a very delicate and personal subject, one that should never be a matter of entertainment. Saying Paul made a huge mistake is an understatement. He completely transgressed his aim of providing content simply “to entertain,” as he claims.  Even if he intended to bring more “awareness” to mental illness, suicide, and depression–which he didn’t– his approach was tremendously sloppy, unthoughtful and completely unsettling.  

Ultimately, much can be learned from Paul’s actions. The most important aspect to understand is that Paul represents a broader trend in our society in which suicide has become sensationalized for entertainment.  Recent series such as “13 Reasons Why” are reminiscent of this ongoing inclination for sensationalism.  In reality, sensationalizing this issue is nothing new: Paul epitomizes our generation perfectly.  Society needs to seriously address the way we go about representing and approaching suicide. Ironically, Paul provides us with a template for us to model ourselves after in going about doing this, that is, if we do so in an antithetical manner.  

First, in order to provide some context for my argument, it will be important mentioning two sentences Paul said that dispel his supposed resolve of trying to reach out to the global community and spread awareness about mental health.

“This was all going to be a joke…why did it become so real?” said Paul just feet away from the body. Referring to his friend, Paul exclaimed, “I’m sorry about this Logan, this was supposed to be a fun vlog!”

Filming a “fun vlog” in a suicide forest?  Seriously?  These statements prove that he had no intention of spreading awareness.  He said this merely to save face for his true motives.  From the beginning, it was only about accumulating gigantic views, money, and “to entertain.”  By venturing in this forest, Paul thought he was doing something crazy and extreme; the point of his entire channel.

In a broader context, however, Paul demonstrates how not to go about addressing suicide. There are countless other methods of doing this that are more appropriate, respectful and effective. So many Youtubers, for example, have dedicated their channels to helping others struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicide in some way. Various charities and activists have worked for decades in spreading this awareness. Filming a person who had committed suicide is not the way to help people, especially because it didn’t come from the right place and did no good for anybody.

In short, if you are going to publicly address suicide, ensure that you put serious thought behind it and be aware of the possible outcomes of your efforts. In other words, don’t ever take this issue lightly. It is critical to understand the difference between intent and impact. Even if he did have positive intentions, which, he clearly lacked, the result of his actions negates anything intended.

In a word, be as sensitive as possible. Don’t try justifying your actions, offer excuses and claim innocence as Paul did, let alone stress your popularity. Instead, relate to the person, understand where they are coming from, and specifically mention how your actions have caused harm. This is something both Paul and his die-hard fans, who keep justifying his actions, needs to comprehend. Paul’s apology felt like it was only a response to outside pressure and criticism.

Secondly, if filming the body itself, including zooming in on the victim’s hands and torso, wasn’t bad enough, Paul continually joked, laughed and clowned around throughout the whole experience. Even if he never filmed the body, his behavior would have most likely landed him in the same trouble–and rightly so. This says everything about his personality and is just as bad as recording the victim and sharing it online for millions to view. Considering his content, it actually suits him perfectly.

Here is another atrocious comment:

Friend: I don’t feel very good

Paul: “What, you’ve never stood next to a dead guy?”

Friend: No.

Paul: [laughs]

Considering this, YouTube has much to learn. By continuing to put individuals like Paul on a pedestal, they are further perpetuating similar behavior. Yes, Paul may have a mass following, but if his content has the potential to cause harm, YouTube not only has a right, but an obligation in taking action. What message are they sending by allowing his content to flourish on the web  and giving him an enormous stage to stand on? The fact that the majority of Paul’s fans are from a younger audience should also heighten concern.  

To YouTube’s credit, however, the website did yank him from Google’s Preferred Program, which marries high end advertisers to the top 5% of YouTube, cutting off his main revenue stream from his 15 million subscribers. Along with addressing Paul directly, YouTube also announced stricter rules for video creators hoping to be compensated for their work.

Still, Paul has proven himself to be a liability. What’s going to be his next move? How far will he continue pushing the limits? Will these new guidelines be enough to stop content such as this from appearing in the future again? It may be too much asking for a termination of Paul’s channel, but YouTube needs to consider this.

The point of the matter is this: if YouTube can spend so much time meticulously deleting or demonetizing smaller channels for pettier reasons, including those who actually push for mental health awareness, then it can stop videos from appearing such as this. YouTube is as much to blame as Paul. The company was either careless, greedy, or some combination of both, all of which are inexcusable.  

YouTube has to answer this question: how do they want to be perceived? Every video shared represents, in some way, what YouTube is about, therefore, they need to think about how they want to be portrayed. This really goes beyond Paul. They are going to have to decide which is more important: earnings or integrity.  

If Paul really desired to spread awareness about mental illness, he would never have tried to sensationalize it in the first place. This immediately set him up for failure. If he knew anything about mental health, Paul would have realized this. The good news is that society can now learn a valuable lesson. There’s something good that came out of what Paul did at least.

It is not my intention to shame Paul or any of his fans. Shaming will never get anyone anywhere. But, people need to learn how to take accountability and think before acting impulsively.

 

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