Trigger warning: References to self-harm throughout. Some links include images not suitable for children.
You may have seen warnings circulating on social media about a game called “Blue Whale”. Disturbing stories claim that children and teens are dared to take on a series of increasingly dangerous challenges, such as carving a whale into their skin and watching horror movies, before being told to kill themselves on the final day of the challenge. Now China Daily is reporting that a 17 year old has been arrested in Sichuan for spreading the game.
If all this sounds like something from dystopian drama Black Mirror, then there’s a reason why: the phenomenon almost certainly originated as a hoax. And it appears that media stories and social media warnings, rather than reporting on the phenomenon, are actually responsible for spreading it.
netfamilynews.com, a Seattle-based digital safety website, goes further. “It’s truly fake,” they say, “a textbook example of how misinformation about online harm can itself be harmful.” (Their detailed survey of the case is well worth reading in its entirety.)
The founder of a Russian online community called “Sea of Whales” has claimed that he invented the game and its surrounding mythology, not with any intention of causing harm but simply to drive traffic to his website. It seems to have been much discussed on Russian social media network VKontakte during 2015 and 2016, before sensationalist media coverage triggered a police investigation which resulted in one arrest in November 2016.
A thorough investigation by Radio Free Europe found no credible evidence linking the game to any real suicides; youth suicide in Russia is tragically high. Their reporter posed online as a young person interested in the game, but only found other curious youngsters attracted by the drama, and people looking to cash in by pretending to be the game’s “administrators” and demanding money. Any discussions were quickly closed down by moderators. The newspaper Izvestia carried out their own investigation and concluded that the whole thing was a hoax.
However the story spread beyond Russia, and over the last six months Blue Whale has been reported across the globe, particularly in Brazil. However there are still no verified examples where a young person has been driven to suicide by playing the game.
The story has recently been given a new lease of life by reports claiming that the originator of the game has confessed, or pleaded guilty. (The lack of consistency in these reports is just the beginning of the problems with them.) Phillip Budeikin was the only person arrested during the initial investigation, on suspicion of organizing online groups promoting suicide. He has been held in custody since, and neither of the two reports we looked at gave any source for claims of new developments in the case. It seems likely that the report on the BBC’s youth-oriented Newsbeat site was simply adapted from the more detailed article in British tabloid the Daily Mirror, despite previous BBC reports having expressed skepticism about the whole affair.
The Mirror article appears to give detailed quotes from Budeikin’s confession, but in fact all the lines are taken from an interview Budeikin allegedly gave to a reporter from website saint-petersburg.ru, four days before his arrest on November 15, 2016. Budeikin, described as a loner with possible mental health problems, is said to have given the reporter a long and detailed explanation of his actions and motives, although all other sources agree that he denied any involvement throughout the investigation previously and again later after his arrest.
The article also quotes an interview with investigator Anton Breido in respected newspaper Novaya Gazeta. This too is not new and dates back to 2016, shortly after Budeikin’s arrest. Breido appeared to believe that Budeikin had not acted alone and other arrests would follow. However we have not seen any official report confirming any arrests against any other people or formal charges against Budeikin.
The Mirror has photographs of many of the alleged victims, although the captions describe them simply as “Blue Whale group victim,” even though no links are proven. There’s a Youtube video of very dubious authenticity, purporting to show an actual Blue Whale suicide. And there’s one more curious detail, again with no source given: the article quotes “prison authorities” as saying that Budeikin has been receiving hundreds of letters from teenage girls, but they are powerless to stop him reading and replying to them.
The China Daily report does not suggest that anyone has come to real harm in Sichuan, and the known facts imply that a vulnerable, attention-seeking young man heard the stories, attempted to lure his friends into a game, but was immediately reported and arrested. Not all the copycats are so harmless though. In February donpress.com published a dramatic story of two girls being rescued from attempted suicide by Kiev police. The report is accompanied by harrowing pictures showing scars from self-harm, not only in the shape of a whale but other symbols and words associated with the game. However the girls are reported to have shown signs of fascination with suicide, and it’s not clear that there was really an “administrator” goading them on, or any organized game. Instead the fragmentary online conversations suggests that stories about “Blue Whale” have become a magnet for troubled young people, swapping rumors and dares – almost as a badge of identity.
The clear risk is that spreading lurid warnings can put vulnerable young people in danger, rather than keeping them safe. British readers might be reminded of the “Bridgend suicide cult”, which ultimately was shown to have been the product of media sensationalism and misuse of statistics. There are also parallels with the Slenderman phenomenon, which went from fiction to urban myth to triggering real life violence in only a few years.
As always, we encourage you to take an active interest in what your children do online, to keep an open dialogue with them, and not to allow unsupervised access until you’re confident your youngsters are sufficiently mature to handle the many dangers of the internet. If you have any concerns about a child’s or young person’s wellbeing you should share them immediately with a trusted professional.
The Blue Whale phenomenon also reminds us that we all have a responsibility to think and check before spreading rumors or warnings on social media, however credible the source appears to be.