The news: a fact and a fast conclusion
On August 11, of 2014, the renowned American actor, Robin Williams, was found dead at his home in Paradise Cay, California. He died of suffocation, apparently because having hung himself.
Everything pointed to suicide. The history of depression in Williams was the easiest thing to associate with the event. Not only exist fake news but also fast news and the conclusions were immediate.
His close friends knew that the last year had been very difficult for Williams who had been increasingly affected by a strong depression, triggered in part by a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. He suffered anxiety, constipation, insomnia, a lot of stress, tremor in his left hand. But what affected him most, because it interfered with his work as an actor, was the loss of memory, paranoia and hallucinations.
For the acquaintances and fans, the death of Robin Williams was the culmination of a life fighting against depression, drug addiction and alcoholism. A culmination ended in defeat.
For some faithful followers, those who were inspired by the way the actor had overcome the depression and temptation of suicide, those who listened to his inspiring words and full of encouragement, for them, his death was devastating. A loss of hope. If he had not been able to overcome the depression, what could be expected from the rest who suffered from it?
The story in slow motion
Four months of forensic investigation later (too much time for the fast news) it was confirmed that he had hung himself, but also that he never really suffered from Parkinson’s disease but dementia of Lewy bodies, a less frequent disease than Parkinson’s but much more aggressive.
Dementia of Lewy bodies is due to an abnormal accumulation of protein in the brain and the formation of a harmful substance in neurons. This causes the cognitive deterioration suffered by Robin Williams. Unfortunately, it is a disease that can only be diagnosed post-mortem.
This implies that the suicide was not because he felt defeated, discouraged, or nothing for which he could consciously be responsible: he suffered from dementia.
This was not transmitted in the media as was his death. This was not big news anymore. And most people prefer to keep the simple and fatalistic version of the story.
For Susan Schneider, widow of Williams, the disease was a “terrorist inside the brain of my husband”, and his death was not by suicide but “the presence of Lewy’s bodies was what killed him.”
I agree with her.
The Werther effect
Determining whether it was suicide or not would seem like a theme for a gossip magazine, but actually, the hasty judgment handled in the media about his death had fatal consequences.
The suicide of a celebrity and its subsequent transmission in the media brings up an increase in the number of average suicides expected in the months following that death, at least in the society or country where the celebrity was known.
Of course, this depends on many factors, like the coverage made by the media, the degree of identification of the celebrity with the audience, the narrative of the event itself, etc. The degree can vary, but there is certainly an influence.
In the case of actor Robin Williams’ death in 2014, the increase in the number of suicides was almost 10% in the United States.
This is not new. The publication and success of the novel The sorrows of the young Werther of Goethe in 1774 brought with it not only that the clothing of the character became fashionable in Europe, but also taking your own life.
Of course, the same happens with other events, including weddings between celebrities, their selfies, their clothes that become fashionable, their rebellious acts … not everything is death.
The World Health Organization knows this and has protocols for suicide cases of famous people who must be followed by the mass media (radio, television …) However, these protocols are hardly followed by these media because they don’t lose the opportunity to take advantage of attractive contents: the fast news.
And now, we have the other media: digital social networks.
Fast news , fake news, gossip and their remedies
The fast news are simple and quick. They do not always look for or pretend to be fake news, but by their nature, they got conclusions very fast, sometimes fake ones. The real story of Robin Williams took months to get a satisfactory conclusion. Also, it requires understanding the mental ailment referred.
I have always believed that much of what happens now in a digitized world is only a replica of what happened or happens in the old analog world. Digitization speeds up processes and changes the outcome of them, but in essence, it is the same.
In the old analog world there are gossip, so studied by sociologists and social psychologists. The reason one tells a gossip and another listens to it, to then repeat the cycle, is the subject of another text.
But what both fast news and fake news share with traditional gossip is that there is more dependence between the response to the message by the receiver than the properties of the message and/or sender. That is to say, the responsibility is much more in those who listen, see or read a message, and in their decision to repeat it, than in those who send it.
We, the receivers, are responsible of the fast news (as much as we are responsible of the fake news). We have to read carefully, be patient, and not take action about a story in development.
We can fight fast news with slowness, pauses, using epoché or judgment suspension. Making a stop. Waiting. But above all, do not feel defeated or discouraged before the end of the story.
- Increase in suicides the months after the death of Robin Williams in the US
- Werther Effect— Wikipedia
- Gossip — Wikipedia
- Robin Williams — Wikipedia
(A Spanish version of this post was first published before in my personal blog as Fast News o La Muerte de Una Celebridad)