Senior Coroner Andrew Walker, who is investigating the death of teenager Molly Russell, said at a pre-inquest hearing that he would be writing to Facebook owned Instagram and Whatsapp, as well as Snapchat, to demand they share any account data that could shed light on the teen’s death.
Walker’s orders are thought to be the first of their kind made against social media companies in a British inquest. The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, empowers coroners to compel testimony or evidence from individuals and organisations thought to have information relevant to an inquest. Failure to comply could result in fines of up to £1,000 or jail time.
Russell’s family have been vocal in their belief that social media played a significant role in their daughter’s suicide and that a portion of the blame lies with the companies.
Following her suicide, Russell’s father discovered she had been looking at images of self-harm and suicide material on social media shortly before her death.
The family’s barrister, Jessica Elliot, told the Barnet Coroner’s Court that social media platforms had created a “self-supplying world of suicide material”.
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According to Elliot, the family was requesting the social media material after it had emerged that Russell had used Instagram, Whatsapp and Snapchat on the night she died.
“The family are concerned that the combined affect of this material was to make suicide seem a more ready, a more normalised and acceptable option because of the world she was living in online,” she said.
Walker said the inquest needed to establish whether or not the “accumulated effect” of the material had “overwhelmed” the teenager.
So far, the investigation into Russell’s death has focused on her iPhone and iPod Touch, which her family were unable to access, and Apple said it was unable to break into the encrypted devices. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Police said it would examine her devices to provide evidence for her inquest.
Although they were able to retrieve evidence running to 50,000 pages, they were unable to access some encrypted apps. After initially saying that material could be handed to the family, the Met has now indicated it is unable to do so because of a legal problem.
Walker made a similar order on social network Pinterest earlier in the year, on which the teen had two separate accounts. Andrew O’Connor QC, representing Pinterest, said at the hearing the company would comply with the order.
He added: “We have received the notice and Pinterest is extremely keen to do everything it can to assist the investigation.”
Following the hearing, a spokesman for Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said: “We haven’t been contacted by the coroner or law enforcement. When we receive the request, we will prioritise it, and promptly respond to the coroner.”