Instagram videos viewed by Molly Russell spark coroner’s ‘greatest’ warning

The 17 videos which contained suicide and self-harm references were played to the court on Friday.

Molly Russell
Molly Russell

A coroner issued the “greatest” warning to an inquest into the death of schoolgirl Molly Russell – as the court was shown videos of “the most distressing nature” the teenager had liked or saved on Instagram.

Coroner Andrew Walker told the inquest the 17 clips appeared to “glamorise harm to young people” and told those present to leave if they were likely to be affected by the material.

On Friday, the head of health and wellbeing at Instagram’s parent company Meta, Elizabeth Lagone, defended the social media platform’s content policies – saying suicide and self-harm material could have been posted by a user as a “cry for help”.

Molly Russell
Molly Russell died in November 2017 (Family handout/PA)

Ms Lagone told the court it was an important consideration of the company, even in its policies at the time of Molly’s death, to “consider the broad and unbelievable harm that can be done by silencing (a poster’s) struggles”.

Before the clips were played, North London Coroner’s Court was told lawyers and the coroner had discussed whether to edit them beforehand because they were “so uncomfortable to view”.

The coroner said: “But Molly had no such choice, so we would in effect be editing the footage for adult viewing when it was available in an unedited form for a child.”

Molly, from Harrow in north-west London, died in November 2017, prompting her family to campaign for better internet safety.

Instagram’s guidelines at the time, which were shown to the court, said users were allowed to post content about suicide and self-harm to “facilitate the coming together to support” other users but not if it “encouraged or promoted”.

Elizabeth Lagone, Meta’s head of health and wellbeing arrives at Barnet Coroner’s Court
Elizabeth Lagone, Meta’s head of health and wellbeing, arrives at Barnet Coroner’s Court (Beresford Hodge/PA)

Ms Lagone also denied Instagram had treated children like Molly as “guinea pigs” when it launched content ranking – a new algorithmic system for personalising and sorting content – in 2016.

The family’s lawyer, Oliver Sanders KC, said: “It’s right isn’t it that children, including children suffering from depression like Molly, who were on Instagram in 2016 were just guinea pigs in an experiment?”

She replied: “That is specifically not the way we develop policies and procedures at the company.”

Describing footage the court was about to see, the coroner said on Friday: “It’s of the most distressing nature and it’s almost impossible to watch.

“If you are likely to be affected by any such videos, please do not stay to view them.”

Turning to the schoolgirl’s family, the coroner said: “There’s no need for any of you to stay.

“In my view, this sequence of video footage ought to be seen (by the court).”

The court was then played the clips, which related to suicide, drugs, alcohol, depression and self-harm.

Molly’s family decided to stay in the courtroom as the videos were played, but the coroner elected to take a 15-minute break in proceedings afterwards.

Ms Lagone then took to the witness box before the coroner said: “My starting point is the internet is a very dangerous place for those who enter into it.

Judson Hoffman, global head of community operations at Pinterest, leaves Barnet Coroner’s Court after giving evidence
Judson Hoffman, global head of community operations at Pinterest, leaves Barnet Coroner’s Court after giving evidence (PA)

“Every effort should be made to make that journey as safe as possible.”

Asked by Mr Sanders whether it was obvious it was not safe for children to see “graphic suicide imagery”, the executive said: “I don’t know… these are complicated issues.”

Mr Sanders drew the witness’s attention to experts who had informed Meta it was not safe for children to view the material, before asking: “Had they previously told you something different?”

Ms Lagone responded: “We have ongoing discussions with them but there are any number of… issues we talk about with them.”

The court heard Molly set up an Instagram account in March 2015 when she was 12 and was recommended 34, “possibly more”, sad or depressive related accounts on Instagram.

Of the accounts recommended, Mr Sanders said one referred to self-injury, one to concealment, four to suicidal feelings, one to “unable to carry on”, two to mortality and one to burial.

On Thursday, Pinterest’s head of community operations, Judson Hoffman, apologised after admitting the platform was “not safe” when the 14-year-old used it.

Mr Hoffman said he “deeply regrets” posts viewed by Molly on Pinterest before her death, saying it was material he would “not show to my children”.

The inquest, due to last up to two weeks, continues.

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