Molly Russell: Instagram exec says posts seen by teen ‘promoting’ suicide were safe

Molly Russell viewed thousands of social media posts relating to suicide before she died  (PA)
Molly Russell viewed thousands of social media posts relating to suicide before she died (PA)

Instagram posts containing references to suicide and self-harm viewed by 14-year-old Molly Russell before her death were “safe”, according to a senior executive at the social media platform’s owner.

Elizabeth Lagone, head of health and wellbeing at Meta, told an inquest into the teenager’s death that the posts the schoolgirl engaged with on Instagram in the last six months of her life were “by and large, admissive” under the platform’s guidelines.

The senior executive told North London Coroner’s Court she thought it was “safe for people to be able to express themselves”, but conceded two of the posts shown to the inquest would have violated Instagram’s policies.

Coroner Andrew Walker asked Ms Lagone on Monday “what gives you the right” to make decisions on what material is safe for children to view, but the witness said the site worked “closely with experts”, adding that decisions were not “made in a vacuum”.

Molly, from Harrow, northwest London, died in November 2017 after ending her life, prompting her family to campaign for better internet safety, arguing content she viewed online “encouraged” suicide or self-harm.

The Russell family’s lawyer, Oliver Sanders KC, spent about an hour taking Ms Lagone through Instagram posts liked or saved by the 14-year-old, and asked if she believed each post “promoted or encouraged” suicide or self-harm.

The witness told the court she thought the content was “nuanced and complicated”, adding that it was “important to give people that voice” if they were expressing suicidal thoughts.

Elizabeth Lagone, head of health and wellbeing at Instagram’s parent company Meta, defended the social media platform’s content policies – saying suicide and self-harm material could have been posted by a user as a ‘cry for help’ (Beresford Hodge/PA)
Elizabeth Lagone, head of health and wellbeing at Instagram’s parent company Meta, defended the social media platform’s content policies – saying suicide and self-harm material could have been posted by a user as a ‘cry for help’ (Beresford Hodge/PA)

The inquest was told that out of the 16,300 posts Molly saved, shared or liked on Instagram in the six months before her death, 2,100 were related to depression, self-harm or suicide.

Ms Lagone said policies were in place for all users and described the posts viewed by the court as a “cry for help”.

She was asked repeatedly by Mr Sanders whether the content was safe for children but declined to answer directly, prompting senior coroner Andrew Walker to interject and ask: “So you are saying yes, it is safe or no, it isn’t safe?”

“Yes, it is safe,” Ms Lagone replied.

Molly Russell’s parents and family arrive at North London Coroner’s Court on the first day of the inquest into her death (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)
Molly Russell’s parents and family arrive at North London Coroner’s Court on the first day of the inquest into her death (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

Questioning why Instagram felt it could choose which material was safe for children to view, the coroner asked: “So why are you given the entitlement to assist children in this way? Who has given you the permission to do this? You run a business.

“There are a great many people who are ... trained medical professionals. What gives you the right to make the decisions about the material to put before children?”

Ms Lagone responded: “That’s why we work closely with experts. These aren’t decisions we make in a vacuum.”

Last week, Pinterest’s head of community operations, Judson Hoffman, apologised after admitting the platform was “not safe” when Molly used it.

Mr Hoffman said he “deeply regrets” posts viewed by Molly on Pinterest before her death, saying it was material he would “not show to my children”.

The inquest, due to last up to two weeks, continues.

Additional reporting by Press Association