This article is a report on the Blue Whale Challenge – an Internet phenomenon that is claimed to have caused the suicides of hundreds of youth all over the world. The article details the development of the game in the media. At the end is a list of behaviors to look out for in people who might be participants in the game. Since it almost always ends in the death of the participant, the author finds it important to ask his readers to first read those behavioral patterns so that they may be vigilant; especially since the length of the article might dissuade readers from finishing.
The Blue Whale Challenge and How to Spot a Player – Fumbly Play
The opening lines of the song, “Burn” by the Russian band Lumen described a blue whale that can’t break free of a net. These lines have now become infamous for their association with the most recent Internet horror story, the Blue Whale Challenge. Some have said that the reference is not actually to the song but to how some blue whales tend to beach themselves and die – relating how the game gets its participants to isolate themselves from their society and kill themselves in 50 days. The phenomenon is said to have started in Russia in 2013, and as much as 130 teen suicides around the world have been related to the fad. But the credibility of the Blue Whale Challenge has been challenged by a great number of people. Some have said that these are horror stories meant to terrify parents of teenagers; like the myth of the Chamgang witch who’d always come around exam time to keep students indoors.
No matter the credibility, these stories have surfaced on social media in Bhutan recently and many parents and leaders worry about the trend – many have shared videos and stories relating to the phenomenon. According to Google Trends, the phrases “Blue Whale Challenge” or “Blue Whale Game” weren’t searched at all in Bhutan until the first week of August. Since then, search queries shot up and stayed up for a fortnight, before falling in the last week. But the problem with stories on social media is that their validity and truthfulness are hard to judge. And Google Trends doesn’t actually help in that; it only reflects what societies are thinking about. Before proceeding to judging the validity of the stories and finding out if the challenge is real, read the following timeline of events, about the coverage of the topic in the media:
November 16th, 2016: Russian site RBTH reports the arrest of a game administrator to the Blue Whale death groups on a Russian social media site. This administrator is Philipp Budeikin.
February 20th, 2017 – A YouTube user named SashoPanchuk posts a video titled, “Guy plays Blue Whale Challenge.” The video has since been deleted.
February 21st, 2017 – Radio Free Europe (RFE/RL), a US-government funded news agency operating in Eastern Europe reports that a game called Blue Whale Challenge was shocking the Russian-speaking bloc. It reports that this game has a lot of hashtags associated with it (like #wakemeat420 #iaminthegame #seaofwhales #F57 #F58). The report states that local media reported that on February the 20th, the St. Petersburg branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) created a database of child suicides. The reporters at RFE/RL tried to infiltrate the game by posing as a willing participant but are out and blocked when they tried to send photoshopped images to their “curator” (game administrator). Moreover, Philipp Budeikin, the supposed creator of the game had been in police custody since November of 2016 due release in May 2017, pending investigation. Mr. Budeikin’s lawyer claims the police placed Mr. Budeikin under arrest to ease off the pressure that had been building. Most importantly, though, the RFE/RL article comes with a line that ought to be treated as a disclaimer:
“But while the Russian-language Internet is groaning with profiles of young people playing or seeking to play the game, shocking photographs of self-injury like cutting marked with the game’s hashtags, and purported links to teen suicides, not a single death in Russia or Central Asia has been definitively tied to Blue Whale.”
The report is a chilling read, but it suggests that the credibility of the game might be murky.
February 28th, 2017 – Fact check site snopes.com writes that the claims about the Blue Whale Challenge causing teen suicides were “unproven.”
March 3rd, 2017 – The Sun, a British tabloid, publishes an article in which they claim the Blue Whale Challenge caused the suicides of over 130 children in Russia. The article fails to mention the disclaimer made by snopes.com
March 6th, 2017 – Two questions appear on Reddit – a site usually called the homepage of the Internet. One in the subreddit r/morbidquestions asks what actions constituted the 50 in the Blue Whale Challenge. Another, in r/OutOfTheLoop, asks about the game itself. A majority of respondents are skeptical about the credibility of the game.
March 7th, 2017 – news.com.au, an Australian news corporation publishes an article reporting that Russian Police was investigating teen suicides.
April 27th, 2017 – UK-based Safer Internet Center, an organization dedicated to safe Internet use, wrote about the Blue Whale Challenge in a blog:
“It is through research and consultation with other colleagues at the of this blog, [sic] it has come to our attention that the ‘blue whale’ is an example of a sensationalized fake news story.”
They don’t believe phenomenon has any credibility. And they’re not alone.
May 2017 – The Cyberbullying Research Center writes:
“…not a single suicide (nor any harm whatsoever) has been confirmed to be linked to the challenge.”
May 2017 – Budeikin pleads guilty to 16 charges of inciting suicide. He claims he started the game to “cleanse society” of “biological waste.”
June 8th, 2017 – A game administrator, IlyaSidorov, comes under arrest.
July 10th, 2017 – A girl in Georgia, U.S. kills herself. Her family believes she had been participating in the Blue Whale Challenge. They found that she’d made drawings of the skeleton of blue whales.
July 11th, 2017 – The Washington Post reports on the suicide of a 15-year-old in the U.S. named Isaiah Gonzalez. The report states that parents of the deceased believed their son died due to the game. They found he had hanged himself in his room and live streamed the suicide through his phone. Another reporter later wrote that local police claimed there wasn’t enough evidence to connect the suicide of Isaiah to the Blue Whale Challenge.
July 11th, 2017 – SkyNews publishes a chilling report, a story about Oleg Kapeav, a UK resident who claims to have participated in the challenge and being close to finishing – by jumping off a building in Moscow – before being rescued by his family. Mr. Kapaev said, “I couldn’t believe anyone could actually kill themselves by playing it. Because I didn’t believe it I guess, I decided to look for it.” He claims that once a participant, the game administrators psychologically manipulate you, “you become a bit of a zombie.” About the end – why participants are driven to suicide, Mr. Kapaev says, “I didn’t feel like I needed to kill myself. I felt I needed to complete the task. I only had this thought in my head that I need to complete the task.”
Why would anyone agree to kill himself or herself just because some strangers on the Internet asked you to? It seems that once a participant declares their intention to play the game, they are hooked and trapped by blackmail. Some participants who successfully stopped playing, or who were in the process of playing told reporters that the game administrators seemed to have information about the families of the participants. And that these administrators constantly threatened participants with harm to their families should they back out.
This timeline of the Blue Whale phenomenon in the media might confuse a lot of readers. It doesn’t seem to justify the credibility or dis-credibility of the stories. But some experts of suicide prevention claim that the question of credibility doesn’t matter. The stories about these suicides can create a “suicide contagion” – where youth copy other youth killing themselves. So, the need to know the truth of it might only be an intellectual matter at this point. No matter what, societies, parents, police, and everyone should treat them as being true and remain vigilant to see that youth in Bhutan don’t become participants to games like this.
What is terrifying is the increasing traffic the phrase “blue whale challenge” or related searches are getting on Google in developing countries like Kenya and India. In fact, in the past month, India has received the high searches of “blue whale game.” Even more so, the South Asian region’s Google Trends records show that more and more people have been looking to download or find the game for themselves. Search queries such as “blue whale apk,” “blue whale challenge download,” etc. are all marked “breakout” by Google. The “breakout” tagline is reserved for queries whose search queries have gone up drastically in short periods of time.
Thankfully, most social media sites have already installed bulwarks against people’s curiosity of the Blue Whales Challenge. If you tried to look up the phrase on Tumblr, you’ll be greeted with a page that says, “Everything okay?” along with a number of suicide prevention hotline numbers. Facebook and other sites have also created similar features to protect people, the youth especially, from participating n the game. But the truth is that when it comes to the Internet, no measure is good enough. It might have been that the game was never a real story, but that it became one once fake stories about it went viral. Once a phenomenon is brought to the notice of the Internet, it becomes co-owned and co-opted by all kinds of users from all over the world. And thereby, a fake story might evolve into a real one, and then, no vermin can be completely killed – to try to clean the Internet of practices like the Blue Whale Challenge is like playing whack-a-mole. If you hit a mole at one place, more might appear at other places, and if you tried to hit all the moles, they will appear outside of the board – underground. And at that point, practices become even more difficult to police, patrol, and pacify. But it is relatively easy to recognize and save youth from participating in this challenge. There are themes in the 50 acts that signal that someone is participating in the Blue Whale Challenge. If you notice more than one or two signs listed below in someone you know, talk to them and seek assurance that they are not participating in the game – make sure to follow through and observe their behavior and actions:
- Cuts on skin (usually, participants are asked to write F58 or blue whale or 4:20)
- Cuts on wrist (participants are asked to produce lengthwise cuts on their wrists)
- Whale drawings on paper
- Cuts on skin or cuts that read “yes”
- Scratches on skin that read F40
- Hashtags like #ImAWhale #bluewhalechallenge #I_am_whale #SeaOfWhales #WakeMeAt420 #F57 #F58 #CuratorFindMe on social media
- Waking up at 4:20 AM more than once or twice.
- Waking up at 4:20 AM to go to a roof
- Scratch out or draw a whale on hand
- Spend an entire day watching horror videos
- Cut lips
- Needle marks on arms
- Standing on edges of roofs and taking pictures
- Standing on edges of bridges and taking pictures
- Climbing on cranes
- Skyping unknown people (participants are asked to speak with their curators online)
- Go to the rails
While these are specific things to look out for in people who might participate in the challenge, most experts have said that youth who tend to be interested in things like this are those who aren’t doing well – mental health wise. Therefore, the best possible prevention is definitely taking care of the mental health of youth in Bhutan. Even without this challenge, there already is a disgustingly high rate of suicide among youth. To follow these tips and ensure that the Blue Whale Challenge or any sinister games like it don’t claim any victims in Bhutan is not just a duty to the nation, it is also a morally righteous task.