Possibly illegal marketing campaign launched on Twitter this week that tied Toronto police in knots trying to help a girl who was ostensibly on the verge of killing herself. After scrambling for hours to respond, police have determined that a series of tweets purportedly by a young person threatening to commit suicide were a hoax intended to promote a new album by Ariana Grande, an American teen idol.
‘This is a huge waste of our 911 dispatchers, our intelligence people, and our communications resources’. The account @ButerasCandiess posed as a troubled super-fan of Grande’s whose professed desire to kill herself by overdosing on pharmaceuticals prompted swarms of other ‘Arianators’ to tweet their support.
Toronto police became involved when a local nurse named Anne Marie Batten brought the girl’s apparent plight to Mills’ attention.
The Twitter account was sending out alarming messages.
“I’ll take pills and I’ll kill myself,” the user wrote.
Mills, who frequently intervenes when people express suicidal thoughts on social media, decided the situation was serious.
“I triaged it from a police perspective and I decided it did appear to be someone who was in distress,” he said.
That’s when police began investigating. Mills did not reply to the person, because doing so would make her suicide public.
But a Toronto philanthropist who tried to contact the girl on Twitter got no response.
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“The logical conclusion is either that they’ve committed suicide, or there is medical distress from swallowing pills in this case,” Mills said.
Soon, however, police began having doubts about the tweeter’s identity.
After deriving the “tweet ID” of the suicidal messages, police contacted Twitter and asked them to divulge the user’s IP address.
The company agreed, and officers traced the address to a location in Greece.
It was clear to police, however, that the address was a “spoof,” an effort to hide the user’s real location. In fact, the tweets seemed to be coming from the U.S.
The account’s previous activity raised suspicions, too. Almost all of the user’s tweets were requests that others follow her account, or adoring messages about Ariana Grande, a star on the kid’s network Nickelodeon whose first pop album is to be released on September 3.
The user’s bio reads “always here for ariana, love her more than everything.”
At one point, after suggesting she would kill herself in three minutes, the user asked her followers to make the hashtag #RIPbuterascandiess trend on Twitter after she was gone.
After Toronto police outed the user, the account tweeted, “It was a hoax! Sorry.”
If the person responsible for the account were Canadian, they could be charged with public mischief, Mills said.
For the last eighteen months, Mills has been working with a group called Real Time Crisis to step in when suicidal people cry for help on social media.
He hopes one false alarm doesn’t discourage people from responding to these crises.
“If people are crying wolf like this, people aren’t going to take it as seriously,” he said.
As for why anyone would use the pretext of a teen suicide to promote an album, Mills said the effort had been perversely effective.
“It gets people to look at the Twitter feed, right?”