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Deadly Internet Fad Forges a City-Social Media Partnership

New York City leaders pleaded with social media companies to do something about the deadly trend of subway surfing viral videos. Now the tech companies are removing dangerous videos and publishing the city's PSA content.

new york subway
The scenes look like they belong in a blockbuster action film.

New York buildings whiz by while so-called “subway surfers” sprint across the top of moving subway trains, leaping from car to car or squeezing their bodies flat against the roof as the public transit vehicles zoom through low tunnel systems.

The videos inundated the feeds of many social media platforms in the spring and summer of 2022. But there was no Hollywood ending.

Instead, kids as young as 14 years old were dying.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) data reveals that the dangerous acts were happening predominantly in the afternoon, during the warmer months when school was in session, as if the stunt was a form of after-school activity. When the videos took off, so did reports of people riding outside of subway cars.
While five people were killed in suspected subway surfing incidents between 2018 and 2022, the same number have died in 2023 alone. Four of the victims were teenagers.

While the risky behavior of “subway surfing” isn’t new, MTA officials saw a connection to young transit riders' behavior with the rise of the viral videos. They felt the chance to become Internet famous was fueling the dangerous stunts.

Data does suggest some teenagers feel a pull to post content that will get them social media engagement. Survey data from Pew Research Center collected during the spring of 2022 showed that at least 30 percent of teens feel pressure to post content that will elicit engagement and attention.
To quell any dangerous activity that was happening in an effort to gain Internet notoriety, MTA asked social media companies in February to remove the content from their platforms. It’s not clear how long it took for the companies to take action, but in a press conference in September, MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber commented that it “took a while to get them to hear what we were saying,” and credited New York Mayor Eric Adams' conversations with the companies that led to results.

“Let’s not kid ourselves, these guys are masters, they know how to use algorithms to attract you to different things. These guys know what they’re doing. We leaned into them, we communicated with them over and over again,” Adams said at the press conference. “We encouraged them to produce a good product without harming young people in the future.”

According to city leaders, the social media companies have removed more than 3,000 videos and photos of subway surfing since the spring of 2022.

Transit and government leaders also noted that the social media companies weren’t just taking down the content, but TikTok, Instagram and YouTube agreed to share posts, reels, shorts and influencer collaboration content of the city’s new “Ride Inside, Stay Alive,” public service announcements that were created by students from the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan.

"Our team of safety professionals are dedicated to protecting our community and will remove dangerous content like subway surfing if it is posted,” wrote a TikTok spokesperson in an email to Government Technology. “Even though this behavior predates TikTok, we have provided the agency with support in the form of ad credits that they may use for public safety content across our platform."

Ultimately, New York technology officials are pleased with the new agreement.

“Modern technology has changed the way New Yorkers live and interact with the city around us, improving our lives in many ways while at times presenting unforeseen challenges,” said Julie Samuels, president and executive director of Tech:NYC. “We’re encouraged to see tech companies work closely with the city and state governments to address these challenges, and we applaud those who came together to stop the dangerous subway surfing trend.”
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.