Blue Whale Challenge
"Blue Whale" (Russian: Синий кит, romanized: Siniy kit), also known as the "Blue Whale Challenge", is a social network phenomenon dating from 2016 that is claimed to exist in several countries. It is a "game" reportedly consisting of a series of tasks assigned to players by administrators over a 50-day period, initially innocuous before introducing elements of self-harm and the final challenge requiring the player to commit suicide.
"Blue Whale" first attracted news coverage in May 2016 in an article in Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta that linked many unrelated child suicides to membership of group "F57" on the Russian-based VK social network. A wave of moral panic swept Russia. However, the piece was later criticised for attempting to make a causal link where none existed, and none of the suicides was found to be a result of the group activities. Claims of suicides connected to the game have been reported worldwide, but none has been confirmed.
In November 2015, a Russian teenager posted a selfie with the caption "nya bye" before committing suicide; her death was then discussed in internet forums and groups, becoming mixed with scare stories and folklore. Further suicides were added to the group stories. Soon after, Russian journalist Galina Mursaliyeva first wrote about these "death groups" in an article published in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April 2016. The article described the "F57" groups on Russian social media site VK, that she claimed had incited 130 teenagers to commit suicide. Mursaliyeva's article was criticised at the time of its release for lacking credible data and balance, with the 130 cases of suicide cited being particularly problematic. The number was originally suggested by the father of one of the suicides, Sergey Pestov, who came to the figure 130 by using Russian media sources to look for child suicides he believed to be linked to online groups and then produced a brochure which implied that foreign intelligence operatives were responsible for encouraging Russian children to commit suicide. After an investigation by Evgeny Berg for Meduza, Mursaliyeva responded by saying in fact there had been at least 200.
The origin of the name "Blue Whale" is uncertain. Some reports say that it comes from a song by the Russian rock band Lumen. Its opening lines are "Why scream / When no one hears / What we're talking about?" and it features a "huge blue whale" that "can't break through the net." Others believe it to be a reference to beaching, where whales become stranded on beaches and die.
The game is said to run on different social media platforms and is described as a relationship between an administrator and participant. Over a period of fifty days the administrator sets one task per day; the tasks seem innocuous to begin with ("get up at 4:30 am", "watch a horror movie"), and move on to self-harm, leading to the participant committing suicide on the final day. As professor at Russian State University for the Humanities, Alexandra Arkhipova found that the administrators were found to be children aged between 12 and 14, drawn to the story as it became widely reported and not, as the hysteria had intimated, predatory adults.
While many experts suggest "Blue Whale" was originally a sensationalised hoax, they believe that it is likely that the phenomenon has led to instances of imitative self-harming and copycat groups, leaving vulnerable children at risk of cyberbullying and online shaming. By late 2017, reported participation in Blue Whale was receding; however, internet safety organisations across the world have reacted by giving general advice to parents and educators on suicide prevention, mental health awareness, and online safety in advance of the next incarnation of cyberbullying.
"People join narratives to explain their experiences...that is possibly why some children have said they participated in the rumoured challenge despite there being no proof of its existence."— Dr. Achal Bhagat, Delhi psychiatrist, BBC News India, September 19, 2017
American skeptic Ben Radford researched the phenomenon, calling it the "moral panic du jour" and equating it to the Dungeons & Dragons controversies of the 1980s. Radford also states "this is only the latest in a long series of similar moral panics and outrages shared on social media... the best antidote ... is a healthy dose of skepticism".
In 2016, Philipp Budeikin, a 21-year-old former psychology student who was expelled from his university, claimed that he invented the game in 2013. He said his intention was to cleanse society by pushing persons to suicide whom he deemed as having no value. Although originally claiming innocence and stating he was "just having fun", Budeikin was arrested and held in Kresty Prison, Saint Petersburg, and in May 2016 pled guilty to "inciting at least 16 teenage girls to commit suicide". He was later convicted on two counts of inciting suicide of a minor. Commentators such as Benjamin Radford have pointed out that sensationalized stories in world news regarding the involvement of Budeikin have all linked back to just two Russian sources, with tabloid news outlets replicating the same information without elaboration.
In June 2017, postman Ilya Sidorov was arrested in Moscow, also accused of setting up a "Blue Whale" group to encourage children to self-harm and ultimately commit suicide. He claimed to have persuaded 32 children to join his group and follow commands.
In June 2018, Russian financial analyst Nikita Nearonov was arrested for allegedly masterminding the Blue Whale game. Nearonov is suspected of grooming 10 "underage" girls in order to bring them to suicide, 2 of which, aged 14 and 17, are known to have survived. As a financial analyst, Nearonov has been described as a "very smart" computer expert who held a large amount of contempt for teenagers, believing that they were "wicked" and "deserved to die". Police reports claim that Nearonov's involvement in the Blue Whale game was his "hobby".
In October 2017, Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan stated that the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission has been directed to investigate the Blue Whale game after reports of suicide around the country. BTRC released a notice urging people to call a specific number if any web link or any information related to the Blue Whale game were to be found. Later that month, the Bangladeshi High Court ordered a six-month ban on special night-time internet packages provided by various mobile operators across the country in order to curb suicides resulting from the game.
In response to the game, a designer and a publicity agent from São Paulo created a movement called Baleia Rosa (Pink Whale), which became viral. It relied on the collaboration of hundreds of volunteers. The movement is based on positive tasks that value life and combat depression. Also in Brazil, Sandro Sanfelice created the movement Capivara Amarela (Yellow Capybara), which proposes to "combat the Blue Whale game" and guide people seeking some kind of help. Participants are separated between challengers, who are the people who seek help, and the healers, who are kind of godfathers of these people. An Adventist school in southern Paraná, in partnership with other education networks, also sought to reverse the situation by proposing another charity game, the "Jonas Challenge" (referring to the biblical character Jonah, who was swallowed by a whale and vomited up three days later). Other games created in Brazil in response to the Blue Whale were the Baleia Verde (Green Whale) and the Preguiça Azul (Blue Sloth).
In Belo Horizonte and Recife metropolitan area in Brazil, many schools promoted lectures to talk about the Blue Whale game. On May 21, 2017, it was announced that the Brazilian police Specialized in High Technology Crime Repression in Piauí were preparing a digital primer to warn young people about the dangers of the game.
The first news about Blue Whale appeared in Bulgaria in mid-February 2017. The Safer Internet Centre, established under the Safer Internet plus Programme of the European Commission, responded quickly. "(T)his sensationalistic story was inflated by a number of our clickbait websites creating a wave of panic among parents", Centre Coordinator Georgi Apostolov reported.
"We decided not to initiate contact directly with the media since this would attract additional interest and could mislead the public into believing the story to be somehow true. As the hype was magnified by thousands sharing the story on the social networks, we just published a warning on our website and spread the link in comments under all shared in Facebook articles and posts. Then the mainstream media themselves started asking us for interviews and quoting our conclusions that it evidently was a hoax."
Two discussion groups about suicide opened on Facebook, but were quickly reported and deleted. The diffusion of the viral news was stopped within two weeks. Later, when a sensationalist piece in the Romanian newspaper Gândul resulted in five more articles being published in Bulgaria that reported the challenge as real, media again circulated SIC's positions, and the hoax was stopped immediately.
In May 2017, Tencent, China's largest Internet service portal, closed 12 suspicious Blue Whale-related network groups on its social networking platform QQ. It said that the number of this kind of groups is on the rise. The search results of related keywords was also blocked in QQ.
In April 2018, Egyptian news sources claimed a 12-year-old schoolboy had committed suicide by taking poisonous tablets to fulfill one of the challenges of the game. According to the media, the schoolboy was found with a scar in the shape of a blue whale on his right arm. In reaction to the growing media awareness of the game, Egypt's Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah uploaded a video on their YouTube channel claiming that the game is forbidden in Islam, and warning against it.
Throughout 2017, media in India reported several cases of child suicide, self-harm and attempted suicide alleged to be a result of Blue Whale, and in response, the Indian government's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, requested that several internet companies (including Google, Facebook, and Yahoo!) remove all links which direct users to the game. Some commentators accused the government of creating a moral panic. Indian internet watchdog the Centre for Internet and Society accused the coverage of effectively spreading and advertising a "game" for which there is little evidence. In India, suicide was the second most common form of death of children, according to a 2012 report. The Supreme Court asked the Indian Central government to ban the game, following which the government responded that since Blue Whale wasn't an application, it couldn't be banned.
Finally in January 2018, after a full investigation the government reported there was no evidence that any death was as a result of Blue Whale saying “The committee analysed the internet activities, device activities, call records and other social media activity, other forensic evidences and also interacted with rescued victims associated with these incidents. Involvement of Blue Whale challenge game in any of these incidents could not be established.”
In September 2017, the Iranian Minister of Information and Communications Technology posted a message in his official Instagram account to warn parents and teachers about the spread of the Blue Whale challenge among Iranian teens.
In Italy, press coverage of "Blue Whale" first appeared on 3 June 2016, in the newspaper La Stampa, which described the challenge as "a bad joke". The debunking site BUTAC reported the total lack of evidence to affirm the game's existence. On 14 May 2017, a TV report by Le Iene about 'Blue Whale' on the national channel Italia 1 linked the challenge to an unconnected suicide in Livorno. The report showed several suicide scenes, mostly from videos on LiveLeak depicting adults unrelated to the challenge. It incorrectly described the footage as evidence of teenagers playing the game. The report interviewed a schoolmate of the Livorno teenager, two mothers of Russian girls who supposedly took part in the game, and the founder of the Russian Center for the safety of children from internet crimes. Following the report, coverage of the challenge in the Italian media increased, with many outlets describing it as real. There was a sharp rise in Google searches for the challenge, and some panic.
On 15 and 16 May, newspapers announced the arrest of Budeikin, without saying that it happened months before. His unconfirmed statements about his supposed victims being "genetical rubbish" were reported as real. Paolo Attivissimo, a journalist and debunker of hoaxes, described the game as "a death myth dangerously exaggerated by sensationalist journalism". Police received calls from terrified parents and teachers, and there were reports of teenagers taking part in the challenge. These included several cases of self-mutilation and attempted suicide. Most reports were considered to be false or exaggerated. Alleged participants were reported from all over Italy: Ravenna, Brescia and Siracusa.
On May 22, 2017, the Polizia Postale declared that they had received 40 alarms. On the 24th this number was increased to 70. On its website the Polizia Postale defines Blue Whale as "a practice that seems to possibly come from Russia" and offers advice to parents and teenagers. Several alleged cases have since been described by newspapers.
In March 2017, authorities in Russia were investigating approximately 130 separate cases of suicide related to the phenomenon. In February a 15-year-old and 16-year-old threw themselves off the top of a 14-story building in Irkutsk, Siberia after completing 50 tasks sent to them. Before they killed themselves together, they left messages on their pages on social networks. Also in February, a 15-year-old was in critical condition after throwing herself out of an apartment and falling on snow-covered ground in the town of Krasnoyarsk, also in Siberia.
On 26 May 2017, the Russian Duma passed a bill introducing criminal responsibility for creating pro-suicide groups on social media and in June 2017, President Putin signed a law imposing criminal penalties for inducing minors to suicide. The law imposes a maximum punishment of six years in prison.
On July 15, 2018, the Saudi General Commission for Audio-Visual Media banned 47 video games, including Roblox, Grand Theft Auto V, Assassin's Creed II and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, that had online components that were alleged to be part of the Blue Whale game following the suicides of two teenagers that had been involved in it.
On March 12, 2018, the parents of seven Tunisian children who claimed their children had killed themselves due to the game requested a ban on Blue Whale from the Tunisian courts. A trial court in Sousse issued an interim judgment prohibiting Blue Whale and another supposed similar game named "Miriam".
In the United States, one site, also called the "Blue Whale Challenge", does not identify as an effort to combat the game, but offers 50 days of challenges that promote mental health and well-being.
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