The Ethics of Death on YouTube

A diver’s death captured on camera has more than 8 million views on YouTube Blue Hole

Earlier this week, Slate published an article entitled, “Diver’s Cemetery: The Blue Hole of Dahab.”  The article details the story of Yuri Lipski, a Russian diver who lost his life in Egypt’s infamously dangerous “Blue Hole” sinkhole in April 2000.  When Lipski’s body was retrieved, it was discovered that a helmet camera he was wearing during the dive captured his last minutes.  And thanks to YouTube, this footage has been viewed over 8 million times around the world.

Though Lipski’s face is never visible, viewers can hear him audibly utter cries for help, listen to his distressed breathing cease, and perceive his body hitting the sea floor.  What’s more, the camera captures from Lipski’s view the frantic struggle of his final moments.

Though the Slate writer Ella Morton notes that Lipski’s visible distress is both “palpable and haunting,” she inserted a hyperlink into her article, bringing viewers directly to the video.  Morton’s decision to promote this video instantly brought ethical questions to my mind.  Yet, even more unnerving than Morton’s decision to promote the death video is the fact that YouTube permits it to be shown.

YouTube does enact restrictions on its videos.  In fact, in its “Community Guidelines” the organization states that it will not permit videos which are “shocking or disgusting.”  It explains, “The world is a dangerous place. Sometimes people do get hurt and it’s inevitable that these events may be documented on YouTube. However, it’s not okay to post violent or gory content that’s primarily intended to be shocking, sensational or disrespectful.”  YouTube does say, however, that videos of this nature may be shown if they are “balanced with additional context and information.”

Technically, then, Lipski’s video adheres to the set regulations.  But does just adding context to a death video make the posting of that video ethical?  I argue no.  The video provides context of Lipski’s death, but that context does not make the video any less disturbing.  In fact, the context humanizes Lipski and makes his death that much more personal and haunting.

Probably because Lipski’s face remains unseen YouTube permits the video to remain.  Even so, I fail to see the value of popularizing a person’s horrific death.  His distress is still hauntingly visible and the privacy of his final moments invaded — put on the internet for all to see.

I want to call YouTube’s decision to allow the posting of such a video into question.  And, I want to use this post to challenge all other social media users to consider the implications of posting such a video.