My first post on the Blue Whale “game” or “challenge” was published March 13 here (and has gotten more comments than any of my blog posts since 1999!). A lot has happened since then, so an update is in order, but I hope you agree that the most important part of this story is how and to what degree fake news becomes real – and itself dangerous – as it’s spread around the world….
It’s time for an update. Since I wrote about the “Blue Whale” story two months ago, the fake news has spread further (e.g., comments from multiple countries under my last post and these commentaries in Indonesia and Bosnia Herzegovina); the number of suicides linked to it has gone down drastically in that “coverage” (from 130 to “at least 16”) and we still don’t know if that number’s accurate; Philipp Budeikin, a Russian man alleged variously to have created it or organized groups of “players,” is reported to have pleaded guilty in St. Petersburg, Russia, to “charges of inciting at least 16 teenage girls to kill themselves by taking part in his ‘game'”; and now schools from Alabama, U.S., to Essex, U.K., are warning parents to be on the alert for signs that their kids are playing this so-called game.
There is no question that, if even one suicide is related to whatever is real in this story, it’s one too many. These developments add no clarity on that, though. “The arrest is real but it is absolutely unclear when it happened,” wrote Georgi Apostolov of Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre, which has thoroughly investigated this “story” with the aim of spreading digital media literacy – and thus the safety – of young Internet users in that country (he was responding to my request for his perspective on these latest developments). More on the safety part in a moment; first an update on what is known….
A media literate perspective
“Some sources claim that the arrest happened in November 2016, others in March 2017. There’s no official information about that. As Russian journalists say, it came after a series of sensational stories about Blue Whale by Galina Mursalieva [herself nicknamed “Klikuchka,” a play on “clickbait,” by other journalists, Apostolov wrote elsewhere] which put pressure on the authorities to take some action. Budeikin was investigated for months before the arrest, and he insisted he was not guilty. The investigation too could not find any evidence that he was guilty of inciting/pressing teens to suicide besides [finding only] that he was a member of Blue Whale groups in Russian social network site Vkontakte.” But he was found to be “psychologically disturbed,” Apostolov added. “When the story was picked up by many other Russian websites, he suddenly started to claim (according to not very reliable sources) that he was the ‘master’…. The first coverage in Russia was in the beginning of 2016, so for a long time the authorities did not arrest him or anybody else. In those publications different accounts of victims were mentioned – 150, 130, etc. Now they are 17. As you can see,” Apostolov wrote me, “the whole picture is quite chaotic but raises many serious doubts because of a number of inconsistencies.”