It wasn’t unusual for Ronnie McNutt to start a live stream on Facebook and ramble or argue with his audience about everything from theology to pop culture.
Viewers knew what to expect from the churchgoing autoworker, so when he began a live broadcast on the night of August 31 it was clear early on that something wasn’t right.
About 40 minutes into the stream, the depressed and “incredibly drunk” 33-year-old Iraq War veteran picked up a rifle which misfired, sparking frantic calls to family and friends.
As police stood outside his home, Mr McNutt ignored calls and pleas from loved ones, who watched in horror as he took his own life. They are now being confronted by that extremely distressing moment again as video of the death is shared on social media and viewed by young children.
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The tragedy has led to criticism of Facebook and other social media firms for failing to block the footage, which wasn’t taken down for more than two hours, allowing it to recirculate on Instagram, TikTok and other sites where kids were being tricked into watching the video.
Amid calls for social media reform, it has also cast a spotlight on Mr McNutt’s life and struggles in the days and years leading up to his suicide.
Who was Ronnie McNutt?
Born on May 23, 1987, Ronald “Ronnie” McNutt was an Army Reserve veteran who lived in the US city of New Albany, Mississippi, where he worked at a Toyota plant, was involved in the local theatre scene and co-hosted a podcast called JustUs Geeks.
The bearded and bespectacled autoworker regularly attended Celebration Church in Tupelo, was a member of a Comicons club and wrote comic book reviews for a website.
Friend and podcast co-host Joshua Steen said Mr McNutt struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in the Iraq War between June 2007 and March 2008.
Mr Steen told Heavy: “He didn’t seem to be the same guy that left for Iraq once he exited the service. I spent many a late night in our studio, via text message, and in person talking with him about life and his struggles.
“Mental health issues are very, very real, and I honestly think that there are a lot of people who struggle with all areas of mental illness who let it go untreated. Or treat it with other things, it seems.”
Described as “caring” and “loyal”, Mr McNutt and his girlfriend had split up recently, Rolling Stone magazine reported.
Just over two weeks before his death, he marked what would have been the 69th birthday of his father and namesake, Cecil Ronald “Ronnie” McNutt, who died in hospital in February 2018.
Mr McNutt posted a family photo on Facebook on August 14, writing: “Today would have been dad’s 69th birthday. He was a powerhouse of a man. And I miss him every day. Our family just isn’t complete without him.”
They are now buried in the same cemetery.
The younger Ronnie is survived by his mum Elaine, brother Joey, sister Mindy, three nieces and two nephews, according to an obituary.
Mr McNutt shared a tragic final Facebook post before he began the broadcast. It stated: “Someone in your life needs to hear that they matter. That they are loved.
“That they have a future. Be the one to tell them.”
Mr Steen said reports that Mr McNutt had lost his job, was about to lose his home or had his identity stolen were not true. “These are blatant lies, stop spreading them,” he tweeted.
What happened on the live stream?
Sitting behind a desk and wearing a black shirt, Mr McNutt fatally shot himself during a live stream on Facebook just after 10.30pm local time on August 31.
He started the broadcast at about 9pm local time and viewers began alerting family and friends as he appeared despondent and very drunk, and made worrying comments about taking his own life.
Mr Steen said he doesn’t believe his friend intended to take his own life when he began the stream.
About 40 minutes into the broadcast, at around 10pm, Mr McNutt picked up a rifle which misfired.
Mr Steen told Snopes it was a had a “cheap, run-of-the-mill, single-shot rifle” – not a shotgun, as claimed on social media.
That was when Mr Steen, through a podcast listener, found out that his friend was in need of immediate help.
Mr Steen watched the live video as Mr McNutt declined his phone calls and ignored commenters’ pleas to get help.
By then, the stream had been reported to Facebook in a bid to get it pulled down, but the video stayed online for almost two hours after the suicide.
When he was still alive, Mr McNutt was inundated with phone calls and messages from concerned family members, friends and strangers, but he continued to ramble, spar with people trying to intervene and make worrying comments.
Mr Steen said: “He’s drunk, and the gun is already there, and all these people had already gotten him riled up on Facebook.
“He hears the police outside. It’s nothing but pressure.”
The fatal shot was fired at 10.33pm as family and friends watched and desperately tried to get through to him.
Why didn’t the police stop him?
The New Albany Police Department was alerted about a man with a gun threatening to take his own life on a Facebook live stream, and officers were sent to Mr McNutt’s flat.
They evacuated neighbouring homes, set up a cordon and used a speakerphone to try to make contact with him and, to no avail, convince him not to harm himself.
Police Chief Chris Robertson, who was among those at the scene, told Snopes that officers were watching the stream, which had a 10-second delay, and one of Mr McNutt’s friends was with them and sending their pleas to him.
The force has been accused of failing to do enough to stop Mr McNutt from killing himself, but Mr Robertson said offers could only try to negotiate.
Storming the flat could have resulted in police shooting Mr McNutt, or the Army veteran shooting at the officers.
The police chief said: “For someone to say we didn’t do all we could do doesn’t know all the facts.”
In a separate interview, Mr Robertson told Forbes it was decided that Mr McNutt was “in such a mental state nobody could’ve gotten through to him”.
“If I’d forced, the outcome probably would’ve been worse,” he added.
Officers entered the flat after watching Mr McNutt kill himself.
Why didn’t Facebook block the live stream?
Mr Steen claims Facebook didn’t do enough to prevent the video from being streamed online or to remove offending content about the death in the days afterwards.
He and several other users reported the near two-hour live stream while Mr McNutt was still alive, hoping to get it removed as they tried to stop him from harming himself.
But it continued, and Facebook has confirmed the graphic video of the death was up for two hours and 41 minutes before it was removed.
After reporting the stream, Mr Steen said he received a reply from Facebook about 90 minutes after Mr McNutt died, stating: “This post will remain on Facebook because we only remove content that goes against our Community Standards.
“Our standards don’t allow things that encourage suicide or self-injury.”
In an interview with Heavy, Mr Steen claimed “Facebook could’ve stopped this and didn’t”, and said in his opinion the social media giant is “directly responsible” for the video being shared online and going viral.
A spokesman for Facebook, which also owns Instagram, said: “We removed the original video from Facebook last month on the day it was streamed and have used automation technology to remove copies and uploads since that time.”
“Our thoughts remain with Ronnie’s family and friends during this difficult time.”
How did it spread across social media?
As the video was left online for so long, it gave sick internet users time to download or copy it, and post the clip across social media.
Firms such as TikTok have scrambled to block it.
Young children are being tricked into watching it, leaving them traumatised, and it has been hidden within clips of cute animals.
A Twitter user told how her 10-year-old “traumatised” sister “woke up out of her sleep crying” and begged people to stop posting the video online.
A mum named Brenda, who lives near Edinburgh, told the BBC that her 14-year-old daughter came running downstairs on Monday with her hand over her mouth, crying and saying she was going to be sick.
She said her daughter had seen the video after it was listed within the recommended clips of TikTok’s For You section.
The section automatically plays videos and many viewers did not realise what they were watching until it was too late.
Brenda added: “She was in such a state, shaking like a leaf and properly sobbing.
“I have never seen her that distressed. It was horrific and took ages to get the words out of her.
“My daughter was in a state of shock, still is in a state of shock and this could stay with her for months.”
She said her daughter has slept with a light on since then, cannot get the images out of her mind and was left so traumatised she didn’t want to leave the house and had to miss school.
The clip has also been posted under fake titles such as “Look at the pasta I cooked tonight” or disguised as clips of animals.
A TikTok spokesperson said: “On Sunday night, clips of a suicide that had been livestreamed on Facebook circulated on other platforms, including TikTok.
“Our systems have been automatically detecting and flagging these clips for violating our policies against content that displays, praises, glorifies, or promotes suicide.
“We are banning accounts that repeatedly try to upload clips, and we appreciate our community members who’ve reported content and warned others against watching, engaging, or sharing such videos on any platform out of respect for the person and their family.
“If anyone in our community is struggling with thoughts of suicide or concerned about someone who is, we encourage them to seek support, and we provide access to hotlines directly from our app and in our Safety Centre.”
Vile trolls have harassed Mr McNutt’s family online, set up fake accounts under his name and claimed the suicide was faked, and created fake fundraising campaigns.
Calls for social media reform
Mr Steen has started a campaign called #ReformForRonnie, which calls on social media companies to respond swiftly and halt the spread of things such as horrific videos, threats, hate and disinformation.
He wrote in a blog post: “If Facebook had responded efficiently, the stream could have been terminated, his account suspended, and law enforcement could have been notified directly from Facebook.”
He added: “We have seen catastrophic breakdowns of terms of service and sets of standards from every single major social media platform over the past week.
“We need social media reform immediately; any action other than immediate action is far too late. We need your help to bring about this immediate change.”
The campaign calls on social media networks to accept responsibility for “all content created, posted, and distributed” on their platforms, adding: “You must immediately stop passing the blame on to the users when content you distribute actively harms them.
“Let me be clear: I am not saying the internet or social media should be censored.
“If you post a suicide video for children to find hidden in cute cat videos, there should be consequences, legal and otherwise.”