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General • Jun 27, 2019

Richard Lewis: How the Internet failed Etika

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Richard Lewis: How the Internet failed Etika

At the time of writing, it has been just a few hours since a body hauled out of the East River in New York City has been identified as that of Desmond 'Etika' Amofah. The 29-year-old had been missing for days, his belongings found near a bridge, a deliberately left clue that this time wouldn’t be like all the others when he had battled with the darkness. This time he would lose.

I didn’t know Desmond and barely followed his work, only really watching from afar the last year. There will be better people to pay tribute to his life than me. That isn’t what this is. Nor is it an attempt to turn his tragic death into a happening, to make this all about me like so many others have, to treat it like an event and proudly declare 'I was there' while checking the mirror to see if my crocodile tears have dried up. I wasn’t there and, because I didn’t know the man, my sense of loss isn’t personal. This won’t be an obituary. Instead, let it be a message to those who know what they did, and how they pushed and pulled a public figure to the point that he felt suicide was the only way to avoid consequences that were most likely imagined. There were few voices telling him this important truth but plenty that fed this dangerous lie. Posting the suicide hotline and saying how much you’ll miss him will not absolve you.

Etika had, for some time, clear and obvious problems with mental health. This isn’t surprising. All studies show that there has been a huge rise of mental illness worldwide. I talk of it often. I see it often. How can anyone’s mind hold up to the awful online world we’ve created? Reality TV mechanics feeding the notion we can simply 'vote off' people we don’t like. Cancel culture mobs pouring over everything you’ve ever said and ever done and pushing for it to go viral in a bid to strip you of everything you’ve ever had. Constant access to fans and abusers alike who can instantly hit you with a slew of unchecked vitriol that drowns out any positives you might enjoy reading. Forums of people dedicated to finding out where you live and looking to put those details out publicly, removing even the sanctuary of home. This amid a backdrop of the hysterical, screeching 24-hour news channels that dream up an apocalyptic crisis every day. Yet every hour we scan social media in the hope of being part of the next thing, to delude ourselves that we have already made it and are important, or to torture ourselves by staring at the lives of people we think we can never emulate.

Desmond seemed the type of person who would somehow negotiate that landscape and remain unscathed. Energetic, enthusiastic, with a strange charisma that shone through even in moments that should have been nerdy and awkward, what this past year did to him was hard to watch. You couldn’t help but notice that for a young man he talked about death just a little too much for it not to be concerning. His moods started to appear just a little bit too big, his silences a little bit too quiet. And then last year ended with a cry for help. He sabotaged his own YouTube channel – six years of work – and made a Reddit post saying goodbye to his fans, stating that it was his “time to die.” A few days later he posted that he had a “meltdown” and apologized for scaring people like that. Already. fans and talking heads alike were coming up with their own theories and were quick to label the whole episode as an attention seeking exercise.

In a more compassionate time we’d all know a few things. We’d know that those who are depressed and suicidal will often not succeed the first time. We’d know that it’s common for people suffering in this way to try and self-sabotage their lives, to give them the final push over the edge into the abyss. We’d know that even if it was a cry for attention, specifically the attention of love, that isn’t a thing to condemn someone for. But we don’t know anything any more. Nothing that matters. We know how to trend, how to get clout and how to traffic in the misery of others.

In the months after this initial suicidal message things went back to normal, except now there was the added burden of the imagined shame. His tweets would occasionally generate cruel jokes about his mental health in the replies, people calling him a fake, some people even telling him to do it.

And let’s just put it on the record what no-one else seems willing to say. You know what the mob wants when they come to constantly apply the pressure, to tell you that society will never forgive you for the things you did and said. Social media is a device where total strangers can make sure you’re never allowed to forget and move on from your mistakes. Instead, you must constantly answer to the faceless, nameless strangers who hold you to a moral standard from the safety of anonymity. Then comes the exaggerations and the lies. They tell your employers, they go after your partners and kids. Your mistakes tarnish anyone and everyone who stands with you. They want you to crack. That’s why they never stop. They want you to crack and maybe kill yourself. That is how they 'vote you off.' It’s just another game, a way to pass the time. Pile on and see if the words we type can erase things we don’t like from existence, even people if we try hard enough. They can feel that way because social media has reduced us down to distillations of ourselves, avatars on the world wide web that don’t have a person behind them. Words on a screen. No consequences. Oh, did they die? Did they do it? Well, they weren’t real anyway.

So what lessons do you think Desmond learned in the months he spent trying to recover? He learned that his public vulnerability was just another weapon that would be used against him, that his sickness had somehow made people disappointed in him. And when you’re in the grips of a disease that mainlines guilt and self loathing into your system these words are not so easily shrugged off. There was maybe a point here where the right support would have stopped the grim inevitability of this story. As we now know, it didn’t.

In April he would begin tweeting about committing suicide again, saying he was going to shoot himself in the head. Everything pointed to someone in serious distress and pain. Among the fanbase, the discussion wasn’t how best to help him but rather whether or not you could continue to support him. After all, this was just more fakery, right? Just a ploy to try and get clicks and hits, a theory that made no sense given he had made essentially deleted his YouTube channel. 

“I’m done expecting anything from him anymore.”

“I’ve supported this dude way too long…”

“He’s destroying any trust he has built with his fans.”

Yes. You were the real victims in this you brave, loyal supporters. Think of the myopia it takes to arrive at the conclusion that an entertainer threatening suicide is actually harming you. Now think about how someone who feels worthless, that they’d be better off dead, will react to reading that even large parts of their own audience doesn’t have the patience for them to get better; that a fan would rather go watch someone else than extend any concern because two suicidal episodes is just too many for them. Remember these comments. I will bet Desmond did.

By late April he was still clearly unwell. In another move that we know is textbook to those contemplating suicide he began to push away friends by blocking them on Twitter, synthesizing arguments about getting him verified as an excuse to do so. Despite this being done via DM we know this happened because who wants to keep anything this '"juicy"' private? So cue the people posting about how, once again, his behaviour was affecting them. Some even publicly went so far as to say that they couldn’t be his friend any longer and implying his illness-driven behaviour was selfish, that “he’s not going to hurt himself ever” just those around him.

He was arrested after police were called to say he might be a danger to himself. Of course, the hellscape we live in these days means the ordeal was livestreamed to a crowd of people most likely tuning in for an instalment of suicide-by-cop. Briefly detained then released  when it was abundantly clear that the best place for Desmond was a hospital, he was cast back out into the world of e-celebrity where a line of people ready to exploit his illness was queued up round the social media block.

Just the day after, he went on YouTube gossip program DramaAlert hosted by Daniel 'Keemstar' Keem. The content is watched by millions of people. It is news, it is content that has a valid place on the platform but the lack of editorial oversight is plain to see. Hosting an interview with someone who had a psychotic episode just 24 hours prior would be disgusting enough by itself. The content of the interview ends up somehow even worse when analyzed.

In a fair world the interview would never have seen the light of day, and in doing so, might have absolved Keem of some of the guilt I would hope he feels. In the interview, Etika repeatedly says he has “become god,” that everything was predetermined and also says a lot of other things indicative of someone in mental crisis. Unprompted at the midpoint of the interview Keem offers this philosophical nugget: “The scariest thing about thinking that the world is a simulation and it’s predestined and all of that is that then there is no reason to live.”

He would later add: “Then why live… Just jump off a cliff. If it’s just a simulation, who cares?”

At worst, this shows a staggering lack of sensitivity but I’m honestly not even sure it can be labeled that benign. I am trying to think of the mindset it takes to bring up suicide being an action free from consequences to someone who has repeatedly threatened to commit suicide. I am trying to think of a reason someone would do that. I don’t want to articulate it.

I recall in 2016 when TV psychology charlatan Dr. Phil interviewed actress Shelley Duvall. It was the first time she had made a public appearance in years. Clearly unwell, the show was met with near-universal condemnation, and rightly called out as the exploitative trash that it was. No such objections were raised for the Etika interview. Oh, now he has died many are clipping the interview and saying this was all Keem’s fault. At the time, the vast majority of comments on the video – including some from other well-established YouTubers – are making jokes at Etika’s expense.

May began with Desmond having another streamed altercation with a police officer. He was arrested and for an all too brief time put into a hospital. If only he had stayed there. It’s not clear what happened – one of the very few details kept private – but he was released amid fans attacking those who were trying to make him stay.

I watched what would be Desmond’s final video on June 19 like so many others. Gone was the mania present in his last few public appearances. Instead a cold, detached clarity as he walked to what would be the place of his death. In it he offered apologies to his fans, to his friends. He spoke of consequences he was too scared to face. He said how he had nobody because he had pushed them all away, something that wasn’t true but was easy to believe because so many had said it. “I guess I am mentally ill," he concluded with a sigh, not breaking stride. “But I’m not going to put responsibility on it. I did a lot of wrong too… In an attempt to be edgy I fucked up my whole life.” More alarming than the contents was the fact that the video was a timed release, published long after anyone would have been able to stop him from taking this final course of action.

Any discussion about concern quickly turned to conspiracy theories when the internet decided to dredge through his old tweets. Among them they found an exchange with a fan where he asked: “When should I have my next mental breakdown y’all?” Someone suggested June 20, the day that Etika would be officially recognized as missing. Many, including Keem, took this as a smoking gun that this meant it was all a hoax. “He’s fooled us again,” people declared as if they had been cheated, incapable of spending just a second to acknowledge that someone threatening suicide and not following through isn’t a deception.

The subsequent drip feed of information… His personal effects being found next to a bridge, CCTV images of someone matching his description staring out of the bridge edge, a body being found a few days later… This time it had happened. Formal identification took place on June 25. Like that Etika was gone and people acted like it was sudden, a bolt from the blue, when it was anything but. The fans spoke of their love and adoration, messages that came too late. Typically, the people who nudged him along the way said how shocked they were, how much it hurt them. Rubberneckers swung by via the trending tag asking if his death was related to a Netflix series because they just had to be part of whatever was popular. The trolls came out too, replying to his final tweet with jokes and revelry.

Many will talk about the spectre of depression that loomed over all of this. Desmond was desperately ill and part of his specific illness makes you do all you can to actively reject and avoid help. I already asked how anyone could stay sane for long in the environment we’ve created but what happens when even the people just like you don’t push you to get help? If a few more people had been more concerned with sacrificing their time to do what was right, to make that effort for a human being they should easily have been able to empathize with because his problems should also be their problems, where would Desmond be now? Maybe the same place, maybe not. How many put clicks first and concern second? Why am I left with the uneasy feeling that I watched the internet crowdsource killing a man for their entertainment?

No getting away from the brutal reality. At the end of all of it, a bright, funny and entertaining young man is dead. Despite giving so much of himself to others, he died not knowing he was loved. His last words spoke of his “stained legacy” but the stain is not left by him.

No quiet remembrance either. Meaningless petitions to have his YouTube channel restored are doing the rounds, a misguided retroactive removal of what little agency Desmond had in his life. They think it shows that they care. Thoughts, prayers, a hashtag and on to the next moment. Insincere catharsis. All I have is that I hope he has found peace but I would rather he had found help. This really isn’t the place for that though and that is unlikely to change any time soon.

Within 24 hours of Desmond’s death being confirmed to the general public a YouTuber with 4.5 million followers released a video called “Etika Ouija Board Challenge At 3am!! (GONE WRONG)."


If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or know anyone that is, and you would like to talk to someone, please reach out and call the Suicide Prevention Helpline 1-800-273-8255 (USA) or the Samaritans 116-123 (UK).