Like with many memes, it's tough to figure out where exactly this one originated. Actress Dove Cameron tweeted about a similar trend in 2014. "The 'comment rip on my photos to scare my friends' trend on Instagram is really, very not OK," she said at the time. "Death and loss should never be disrespected." Simrin said he wasn't "really into social media" back then, but he would like to take credit for the hundreds of people who are joining in on the trend by leaving similar comments on accounts like Drake's and Kim Kardashian's. Not all of them are teenagers, either: We reached out to dozens of Instagram users who are doing it, including people in their 20s and 30s, but the majority of them refused to speak on the record out of fear of being judged.
Pranks aren't anything new, but now they have the power of social media behind them, so their effect be amplified by how quickly they can be seen by millions of people instantly.
That's how internet challenges take on a life of their own, whether it's a viral dance of a Drake song or people dumping buckets of ice water on themselves to raise awareness for ALS. Simrin may think his prank is funny or innocent, but it's hard to imagine his friends or family feeling the same way. Imagine if he were your son or brother and, without any context, you went to his Instagram page and saw a bunch of people telling him to rest in peace. You would likely panic immediately.
"My parents and my little sister have no idea this even occurred," said Simrin. "However. my older sister thought it was pretty cool and creative."
Jeff Hancock, a professor of communication and founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, said that the motivation behind trends like this is just the "human psychological weirdness." He said there's no doubt these types of internet pranks are "a sick form of humor, but nonetheless, it's humor, and that's human." This behavior shouldn't be blamed on social-media apps, said Hancock, although Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter do make everything more visible, and that leads to more mimicry and copycats. "We know from old media studies if it bleeds, it leads," he said. "Negative emotion is much more attention-grabbing, and [making someone] think that somebody's died is about as negative as you can get."
Social media is fueled by likes, and that can drive people to inconsiderate extremes. This isn't anything new, of course, because there are endless examples of how toxic Facebook, Instagram and Twitter can be. "Because they're not in real life ... looking at people who might be sad, horrified or shocked, people play the [prank] without thinking about the fact that there are people who would be upset, hurt or psychologically affected by the news of their death," said Karen North, a clinical professor of communication at USC Annenberg, an expert on social-media and psychology. "Because that's not part of a game. The game is to get people to comment, and the other game is to get people to fall for the fake report of your death."
Simrin said he's stopped leaving comments asking for RIPs because "people were getting offended," though he said that was just envy on their part. "Most of those who talk smack over the internet are just jealous," he said. "They don't wanna see people succeed in life."
Update 9/20/18, 11:20AM ET: Instagram told Engadget the image it removed from Simrin's page, which was part of his original prank and had over 10,000 comments, was an "error" and it has now been restored. "We apologize for the inconvenience caused," the company said. "This type of activity does not violate our policies."