Molly Russell was a typical teenage girl. She liked Harry Potter and horse-riding. She was juggling homework, starring in an upcoming school play, and keeping up friendships, all with the support of her loving family in northwest London.
But in November 2017, Molly took her own life at the age of 14.
An inquest revealed Molly engaged with a huge number of posts on Instagram related to depression, self-harm or suicide in the months before her death.
The coroner’s findings concluded that viewing material on social media “contributed to her death in a more than minimal way”, after suffering from depression and “the negative effects of online content”.
Sky News has found that at least one piece of content identical to that saved by Molly prior to her death, and which glorifies suicide, remained on Instagram this week.
The post was found by searching a term related to a method of suicide – a term Instagram promotes as part of its suggested searches feature and which is available to all users over the age of 13.
Warning: Readers may find this story distressing.
A digital trail
The inquest examined Molly’s social media activity in the six months prior to her death.
Sky News has chosen not to show the posts Molly engaged with, given some of their harmful content.
Among the 2,100 images related to depression or suicide Molly saved or liked on Instagram, the most benign posts show images, phrases, and poetry relating to feeling sad and depressed.
The most disconcerting ones show graphic images of self-harm and others which glorify suicide.
Many of the posts refer to worries around a lack of confidence, body image, and failing to meet family expectations – anxieties likely to particularly resonate with teenagers.
They reveal a picture of a young woman struggling with severe depression, suffering in silence while appearing outwardly happy.
They raise a crucial question: whether Molly’s online activity was a reflection of her state of mind, or if the content she was viewing and the algorithms that promoted it were more directly responsible for her distress.
Molly’s timeline – including a tweet to JK Rowling
The exact timeline of when and how Molly began engaging with this material is unknown.
Only six months of data from before her death in 2017 was available from Instagram, as information from before this time is no longer held on its servers.
Molly appears to have been engaging with suicide-related posts throughout this period. Instagram also could not provide information on all content Molly viewed or searched for, only those posts she interacted with, meaning she likely came across far more material than revealed by the inquest.
Instagram was not the only site through which Molly accessed harmful content. Pinterest, another image sharing social platform, sent emails to Molly highlighting posts under the topic of “depression” and “sad depression quotes”.
It was promoting the type of content she had been viewing on her account, an example of how algorithms used by social media companies can run the risk of pushing extreme content on to users as they seek more engagement.
A Pinterest executive gave evidence to the inquiry and admitted that at the time Molly was using the service, it was “not safe”.
Molly also set up a Twitter account, separate to another one that her family were aware of, which she used to follow celebrities who had spoken out about their problems with depression. Tragically, it was through this anonymous account that Molly made some of the few public admissions of her own struggles.
She told JK Rowling, who with almost 14 million followers receives large numbers of mentions: “My mind has been full of suicidal thoughts for a while but reading Harry Potter and the world you created is my escape.”
The debate over freedom of expression
It was suggested during the inquest that some online content related to depression, self-harm, or suicide could have some positive effects.
A representative for Meta, Instagram’s parent company, told the inquiry online spaces that touch upon this area may allow those suffering to express themselves and build a community of people experiencing similar struggles.
It is possible Molly found some comfort in following celebrities on Twitter who had been open about their own difficulties and had overcome them.
But Molly’s father told the inquiry he believes, in general, the content his daughter viewed online “normalised” the issue of suicide. He felt its unrelenting bleakness would likely worsen the mental health of anyone looking at it.
The differing views reflect a genuine debate around the extent someone should have the freedom to post about their troubles and those of others online, against the risk this activity could encourage some to harm themselves.
But separate to this issue, details of Molly’s online activity reveal she was still able to engage with harmful posts on Instagram and Pinterest despite the fact they violated the companies’ policies.
The debate around what is considered harmful becomes redundant if content that violates social media companies’ rules cannot be accurately identified and removed.
This was a worry raised by Frances Haugen, a former Meta employee, in her evidence to a committee of MPs considering the draft Online Safety Bill in 2021, which is still proceeding through parliament.
She told the committee that Facebook, another Meta company, was only able to identify 3-5% of misinformation and that Instagram was the most dangerous social media platform due to its focus on body image and social comparison.
“Facebook’s own reports say that it is not just that Instagram is dangerous for teenagers; it is actually more dangerous than other forms of social media.” she warned.
‘Remember who Molly really was’
Some progress has been made in improving automated systems that pick up dangerous content.
Elizabeth Lagone, Meta’s representative at the inquiry, said online harm was an “evolving” area. Instagram does, for example, point users towards a help page if they search some phrases relating to emotional distress. Some other search terms are blocked completely.
However, Sky News found one search term relating to suicide, which is blocked by Instagram, could be accessed simply by typing in part of the term and selecting from the recommended search list that appears.
Worryingly, it means people searching grammatically similar phrases, with no connection to suicide, could be directed towards harmful content.
Using this search, one poem Molly saved to her account shortly before her death, and which glorifies suicide, appeared in the search results.
Instagram has taken down this post and the recommended search term after being alerted by Sky News. It is an example of the type of harmful content that still exists on social media and the dark corner of the internet Molly inhabited before her death.
Because of this, Molly’s family made clear at the inquiry that the digital trail she left behind, and who she really was, shouldn’t be confused.
“We, her family, think it is essential to remember who Molly really was, so we can each hold a picture in our minds of a caring individual, full of love and bubbling with excitement for what should have lay ahead in her life.”
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nitazenes: The new synthetic opioids stronger than heroin that are being cut into drugs
Charlotte, not her real name, wanders back and forth with her empty coffee cup held out towards the tide of commuters coming through the barriers.
Rush hour at Whitechapel underground station is the best time of day for the small, frail, 23-year-old to earn enough change to pay for her next hit.
She’s agitated, but for the briefest moment agrees to talk. I ask if any symptoms from her drug use have changed recently. “I’ve got holes in my legs,” she says. “There’s no skin, just holes. It’s painful.”
Her legs are bandaged. She says the strange bores in her flesh have only appeared in the last few months and is unsure why.
But drug charity workers are convinced this is a symptom of a terrifying evolution in the drug market – a growing prevalence of dangerous synthetic opioids being cut into drugs like heroin.
The deadliest, nitazenes, are the newest killer on the streets.
“I’m seeing people coughing up blood. I’m seeing people dying,” says crack cocaine user Rory, who we meet in Aldgate in East London.
“Any drug you are buying off the street you’re taking a risk. These people are in it for the money and the purer it is, the less they make – so they are putting other stuff in it.”
The opioid fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and is the primary drug in North America, where synthetic opioids are estimated to have caused 75,000 deaths in the US last year.
Nitazenes have similar properties to fentanyl, but can be up to 300 times stronger than heroin. Only this week, several have been classified as Class A drugs.
First detected in the UK from a sample of white powder found in the back of a taxi in Wakefield in April 2021, nitazenes have since been found in heroin, cannabis, cocaine, in a vape and most prevalently in black market pills sold as the anti-anxiety drug diazepam.
‘Substantial risk of overdose, hospitalisation, and death’
In October, a police raid on a “sophisticated factory” in Waltham Forest recovered approximately 150,000 nitazene tablets, the largest-ever recovered stash of synthetic opioids. Eleven people were arrested.
Detective Superintendent Helen Rance, who is leading the investigation, said: “Synthetic opioids have been detected in batches of heroin found in London and across the UK; they substantially raise the risk of incredibly serious harm to the user and are believed to be linked to a number of deaths.”
Recently, the opioid is thought to have been cut into a batch of drugs in Dublin, causing 57 people to overdose within a few days.
Professor Eamon Keenan, from the Health Safety Executive, said: “These pose a substantial risk of overdose, hospitalisation, and death.”
Meg Jones, director of social justice charity Cranstoun, said: “We are seeing nitazenes pop up in pockets all over the UK and it is incredibly concerning.”
She added: “There are an increasing number of synthetic opioids being detected in drugs that people thought were very different. We need to see government action quickly on this, because we are sleepwalking into what I would deem to be a public health crisis, and we are not prepared for it in the UK at all.”
Action means more testing and provision of drugs that can counter the effects of opioid overdose.
Taliban crackdown means drugs produced in UK are more deadly
Outreach worker Abdirahim Hassan, founder of East London community group Coffee Afrik, agrees. He showed me a video of a young woman who appears to have overdosed. She is slumped unconscious on the pavement in Whitechapel.
Her body is in the prayer position, her torso flat over her knees, her face pressed against the ground. “She’s just frozen. Her eyes are closed, and people are just walking past,” said Abdirahim. “She’s a young woman, maybe 24, somebody’s daughter.”
Abdirahim said a crackdown on heroin production by the Taliban has successfully stemmed the flow of heroin from Afghanistan which had previously provided 95% of the UK heroin market. That’s led to a boom in the easier to produce, more deadly synthetics.
“What it means is there’s a much higher risk of overdose and death,” he said. “But it’s a cheaper product and more potent so people are in greater crisis and there is not enough testing.”
Birmingham also saw a spike in the detection of nitazenes. Sky News was given access to a unique project in West Midlands police cells, run by the charity Cranstoun.
Steve Whitby is a drug and alcohol worker who visits suspects in their cells. The idea is that drug rehabilitation services reach out to offer support to addicts while they are in police custody.
On one cell visit, Steve warns an addict, who is also a suspected shoplifter, about the dangers of nitazenes. He told him: “So these are synthetic drugs that dealers are putting into heroin – but it’s causing lots of people to die from overdose.”
He told the man he shouldn’t take drugs alone and that he will leave a kit with his belongings which includes two syringes of naloxone, an antidote of opioid overdose. He explained the man will have to teach whoever is with him how to use it.
This pilot in Birmingham is believed to be the first time naloxone has been given to addicts in custody, and the charity said this needs to become a national provision.
The Cranstoun programme in police custody suites is funded by the West Midlands police and crime commissioner.
“In essence, this saves more lives than any other intervention,” said Steve as he demonstrated how to inject the clear liquid into the side of the thigh.
He said sometimes it’s dispensed to the children of addicts so they can save their parents lives if they overdose.
As such a newcomer to the UK market and often concealed as something else, there is little data about the prevalence of nitazenes.
The opioid is even more dangerous for those who have never taken it before
However, Wedinos, a service based in Wales where people can send in their drugs anonymously, to get them tested for what they contain, has started to increasingly detect it in other illicit drugs.
They only found nitazenes five times in 2021, but have discovered it 57 times so far this year. It was in what users thought was cannabis in Manchester and cannabis vape liquid in Portsmouth.
They’ve been found most often in what users thought were the black market versions of the anti-anxiety drug diazepam, and pain medication oxycodone, 21 times each.
They are even more dangerous to people who don’t already use opioids, and therefore have no tolerance.
The reported side effects include hallucinations, irregular heartbeat, chest pains, nosebleeds, vomiting, memory loss, aggression, and overdose.
Back on the streets of Whitechapel, another heroin addict, called Rebel, sits waiting for her methadone script outside a drug rehabilitation centre.
She said heroin has changed. She hates the synthetics, describing them as a waste of money and said they don’t work, but she agrees that not knowing what she’s using makes life more dangerous. Health workers have run urine tests and warned her of other substances cut into her drugs.
“They text me and tell me something is cut in it – it’s really bad.” Rebel becomes emotional talking about the impact of her addiction. “I’m 60 now. I don’t want to die a junkie,” she said.
This week, 15 new synthetic opioids were categorised as Class A drugs by the government, but that doesn’t make them any easier for drug users to detect.
A dangerous market has become more deadly. Users like Rebel are rolling the dice every day.
UK weather: New yellow warnings for snow and ice across country including parts of Cumbria and Kent
There is a risk of snow and ice for parts of the UK today and going into the weekend, with the Met Office issuing new weather warnings.
The Met Office has issued new yellow weather warnings for snow and ice across northern Scotland and in parts of the country’s south.
The warnings also stretch down the eastern coast of England – from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to below London – and are in effect from 5pm tonight until 10am on Saturday morning.
Wintry showers will lead to some icy patches and snow cover, the forecaster said.
People could suffer injuries from slips and falls on icy surfaces, while motorists may face treacherous conditions and public transport services are likely to experience delays.
The new alerts have been issued after three previous yellow weather warnings were in place until 11am this morning.
New warnings follow days of disruption
The bout of wintry weather made its presence felt on Thursday, with dozens of schools in Cornwall either partially or fully closed.
At the other end of England, several crashes were also reported on County Durham’s roads because of snow.
A widespread frost was forecast for this morning, with overnight temperatures plunging to -6C in southwest England, -8C in Wales, and -10C in Scotland.
Those freezing temperatures are likely to return this evening and into Saturday.
Sky News weather presenter, Kirsty McCabe, said: “At the moment, outbreaks of rain, sleet and snow are set to move in from the west on Saturday night.
“This awkward mix will push eastwards across parts of England and Wales.
“Snow is most likely over the Welsh hills but could fall to lower levels overnight as the temperatures drop well below freezing.
“As well as a risk of snow, there is the potential for icy stretches and freezing rain (which causes black ice on roads).
“Other wintry hazards this weekend include freezing fog, which is likely to linger and make it feel even colder.”
Health and transport risks ahead
The UK Health Security Agency has issued amber cold health alerts in five regions – the East Midlands, West Midlands, North West, North East, and Yorkshire and the Humber – until 5 December.
It fears there could be a “significant” impact across the health and social care sector.
According to the Met Office, the UK is likely to remain in a northeasterly airflow for several days to come, meaning it will stay cold well into next week.
National Highways is urging motorists to plan their journeys, keep an eye on the weather forecast, and take extra care on the roads.
Its national network manager Dale Hipkiss said: “Freezing conditions bring so many hazards such as snow and ice.
“Please take every possible step to understand your journey in advance and allow extra time when travelling.
“Keeping a kit of essential items like a torch and warm clothes in your vehicle can be vital.”
Omid Scobie dismisses need to say sorry to Royal Family after book ‘error’ named King and Kate in ‘skin colour’ row
Omid Scobie has refused to apologise to the Royal Family after the King and Princess of Wales were named in his new book as the senior royals alleged to have questioned the skin colour of Prince Harry and Meghan’s son before he was born.
The royal biographer has been at the centre of a media storm after copies of Endgame were temporarily pulled from shelves in the Netherlands over what the publisher, Xander Uitgevers, called an “error”.
When asked on Thursday if he wanted to apologise to the Royal Family, the 42-year-old said: “It is not for me to apologise, as I still want to know what has happened.
“[The buck] does not stop with me, there are irresponsible people in this country that have broken the law and repeated names that should never have been broken.”
Having previously insisted that he never submitted a book that included the names, Mr Scobie swore on Thursday that the incident was not part of a publicity stunt.
“On my and my family’s life,” he said, when quizzed by Newsnight’s Victoria Derbyshire.
He added: “It is serious, I feel hurt by some of the conspiracy theories that this is a publicity stunt and that I am in cahoots with my ‘pal’ – all of this is frustrating.”
The writer said he has received 20 death threats in the past week due to the scandal.
“Having done this job full-time for six years, I am used to it,” he said. “The skin is thick, but it is sad that has become the norm.”
The unsubstantiated allegation against the Royal Family was first made by the Duchess of Sussex in her March 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey in which she said a senior member raised “concerns” about her son Archie’s skin colour before he was born.
Mr Scobie’s book claims that, in the aftermath of the Oprah interview, Meghan wrote a letter to the King expressing concern about unconscious bias in the Royal Family.
In the UK version of Endgame, Mr Scobie wrote that in her letter to the King, Meghan revealed “two identities” of those “involved in the exchange”.
“Laws in the United Kingdom prevent me from reporting who they were,” he wrote in the book.
There has been no evidence that has been published since to suggest the allegations are true.
Sky News presenter and anti-racism campaigner Sir Trevor Phillips called the story “nonsense”, adding that there is not a family of colour in the “entire world” who has not had a similar conversation.
“I have a grandson who is absolutely gorgeous and of course, we as a family talked about if he was going to look more like his mother, who looks like me, or his father who is of Puerto Rican heritage,” the broadcaster told Sky News Breakfast on Friday.
“In the same way that your family would talk about hair colour or eye colour. We all have the same hair, the thing that is different about us is skin colour. It is a mark of excitement.”
Speculating about how and if the conversation actually took place within the Royal Family, Sir Trevor said: “What I expect someone might have been saying is ‘I really hope this baby looks more like her than him’.”
On Thursday, Mr Scobie reiterated that an investigation has been launched into how the names were included in the translated version of his book and that he “looks forward to finding out more about it”.
Meanwhile, Buckingham Palace said it is considering whether it should take action.
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