In April, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) quietly released a 10-page report to ‘The Vault’, the FBI’s Freedom of Information Act library, on the 1994 death of Nirvana guitarist Kurt Cobain by suicide. The file contains letters asking the FBI to reopen its investigation into Cobain’s death, citing television documentaries and other speculative media. The letter writers’ names were changed. For decades, the government kept this file on all the conspiracy theories about the grunge icon’s death. Here’s exactly what’s in the newly released documents.
5 April marked the 27th anniversary of Cobain’s death. On the same day, an NFT of Cobain’s last photoshoot was put on the market, and Nirvana as a group was hit with a copyright infringement lawsuit for alleged unauthorised use of a 1949 illustration on their merch. As announced this week by Rolling Stone, “six strands of Cobain’s hair, cut in 1989, will be part of a rock-memorabilia auction.”
It’s safe to say that Nirvana has been making headlines again for different reasons. The FBI makes public some of its archives on politicians, entertainers, and other infamous names from time to time. And quietly last month it made its file on Cobain available for the first time.
“There has since been evidence found that he was killed and didn’t commit suicide, as originally thought,” said one letter. Another typed-out in September 2003, wrote, “Millions of fans around the world would like to see the inconsistencies surrounding the death cleared up for once and for all. It is sad to think that an injustice of this nature can be allowed in the United States.” That same letter also cites director Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney documentary as an example of similar scepticism.
The first letter mentioned above dates from 2007. “The police who took up the case were never very serious in investigating it as a murder but from the beginning insisted on it being a suicide,” it reads in part. “This bothers me the most because his killer is still out there.” The writer also cites so-called evidence (“there were no prints on the gun he supposedly shot himself with”) and claims that, in Cobain’s note, “he mentioned nothing about wanting to die except for the part of it that was in another handwriting and appeared to be added at the end.”
The FBI’s file also contained two responses from different officials at the Bureau sent to the authors of these conspiracy theories. “We appreciate your concern that Mr. Cobain may have been the victim of a homicide,” each reads. “However, most homicide investigations generally fall within the jurisdiction of state or local authorities.” The replies go on to say that “specific facts” about “a violation of federal law” would have to be presented for the Bureau to pursue, but based on these letters, “we are unable to identify any violation of federal law within the investigative jurisdiction of the FBI.” With that, the Bureau said it would be passing on pursuing any investigation.
The released pages also include something else that might revive Nirvana fans’ scepticism when it comes to the frontman’s death. Portions of a January 1997 fax sent to the Los Angeles and D.C. offices of the FBI from Cosgrove/Meurer Productions—the Los Angeles documentary company that’s home to the long-running Unsolved Mysteries series—include a one-paragraph summation of theories about the case. In this paragraph, “Tom Grant, a Los Angeles-based private investigator and former L.A. County Sheriff’s deputy” shares his suspicions that the suicide ruling was “a rush to judgment.” The fact sheet claims that Grant “has found a number of inconsistencies, including questions about the alleged suicide note,” which Grant believed was “a retirement letter to Cobain’s fans.” That same year, Unsolved Mysteries aired an episode addressing these theories.
Although Cobain’s file did not prove to be as absorbing as the Notorious B.I.G.’s or Robin Gibb’s of the Bee Gees, it will undoubtedly lead many Nirvana fans to go over Cobain’s death once more (just in case).
When I think of TikTok, the first things that come to mind are dance choreographies, short-lived challenges and cute animal videos. Ask someone else and they’ll probably mention similar concepts such as the Tim Burton challenge, singing bowls’ comeback or the unboxing trend. But no one in their right mind would mention live streamed suicides or teen deaths, right? Well, as it turns out, they wouldn’t be wrong.
TikTok has already made headlines for its strange way of moderating certain types of content. While comments are not getting deleted quickly enough, TikTok moderators are (rightly so) being accused of discriminating and racist content moderation. In other words, although we’re quick to glamourise the sensation that the video-sharing app has become, we tend to forget or ignore its dark side. This time, let’s not do that—let’s look at TikTok’s worst aspects so that we can work towards fixing those (data privacy problems put aside just this once).
In February 2019, a 19-year-old vlogger living in Curitiba, Brazil, took his own life on a TikTok livestream after warning his fans a day earlier that he was planning a “special performance.” Around 280 people watched the man kill himself on the stream, which continued to show his body until TikTok moderators finally took it down. During that time, users posted nearly 500 comments and 15 complaints. It took TikTok three hours to warn police and over an hour and a half to take the video down.
Reportedly, TikTok took steps to prevent the post from going viral first before notifying the authorities and Business Insider reports that the video-sharing app’s first move was to notify its PR team immediately. This story only came out into the open a year after the incident took place, so TikTok’s PR team obviously did a good job at stifling it.
Then, in September 2020, a video of another man committing suicide by shooting himself in the head with a shotgun began circulating on the app. Despite not seeing it myself, I witnessed the mass outcry and shock firsthand in reply videos and their comments section. Against odds, the video remained on the platform for a few days, which resulted in TikTok being heavily criticised for its poor moderation efforts.
In response to the moderators’ inaction, several users ended up posting engagement they had with TikTok moderators, who reportedly told them the video “doesn’t violate our Community Guidelines.” In the meantime, users took the matter into their own hands by sharing videos that warned others about the presence of the suicide clip on TikTok. “Please try not to go on TikTok today or tomorrow,” one video said. “There is a very graphic and gorey suicide video going around right now!”
“Please stop treating this like a meme, please stop treating this like a joke, this is a real person who passed and his family is grieving,” said another TikTok user. In July, the app’s moderation guidelines were questioned once again, after its algorithm promoted a collection of anti-semitic memes soundtracked by the lyrics, “We’re going on a trip to a place called Auschwitz, it’s shower time.” Nearly 100 users featured the song in their videos, which remained on the app for three days.
TikTok’s Transparency Report published in July 2020, says that the app removed over 49 million videos globally in the second half of last year, with 98.2 per cent of those being taken down before they were reported. 89.4 per cent of these were removed before they received any views. Yet, TikTok is known for censoring users and content that doesn’t violate any guidelines, including a teenager who criticised China, those deemed ugly or disabled and Black creators.
Fast forward to October 2020, and another death can be somehow ‘assigned’ to TikTok. 21-year-old Areline Martinez was shot in the head by one of her friends in what has been referred to as an accident, as Mexico News Daily first reported. Martinez was killed while attempting to stage a kidnapping for a TikTok video.
Previous videos posted on Martinez’s TikTok page featured scenes in which she was blindfolded with her hands and feet bound, while men surrounded her and pointed guns at her head. TikTok has since removed these videos. Many of the friends who were involved in the fake kidnapping fled the scene after the killing, though a “behind the scenes” video posted to TikTok before Martinez was killed was used by authorities to identify the individuals.
Undoubtedly, TikTok moderators cannot catch every instance of inappropriate content, but the timeline above clearly highlights the amount of content that goes unnoticed on the app for too long—or sometimes simply ignored by moderators until users start getting involved. TikTok’s content-moderation is a time bomb waiting to explode in our face.
Because teens are using the app not just as a channel for light-hearted fun but also as a space to discuss personal problems, traumas and politics, the more serious the TikTok conversation gets, the more potential mischief and “coordinated inauthentic behaviour,” as the app calls it, its users will face from bad actors. Even Bill Gates called TikTok “a poison chalice.” The question that remains now is how; how can this be stopped?
If you’re struggling with mental health issues and feel like you need help, you can contact the suicide prevention specialists Samaritans in the UK here or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US here.