Core concern: ‘Blue Whale’ & the social norms research
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.”
Impacts on youth
Blue Whale is such a quagmire that it’s hard even for those who’ve investigated it to tell where the disinformation stops and the misinformation, the unintentional falsity, starts. Spreading false information and fear is especially unfair to young people because they have little say in what misinformed adults decide for them upon hearing the information. And youth can be drawn to news of their peers, whether fake or factual, and so can inadvertently relate to, spread and be influenced by it – the exact opposite of what suicide prevention experts advise the news media to avoid.
Most important is the risk to vulnerable young people. None of this is to minimize in any way the harmful potential of false information spread globally, especially for young people lacking resilience, perspective and support.
“As many colleagues have said,” my European colleague Georgi Apostolov wrote, “it is fake but still can be dangerous for emotionally vulnerable children.” [Parents and educators may want to be alert to the possibility that kids – some very vulnerable ones crying out for and needing attention – will use the term “Blue Whale” to get that attention, whether or not the kids have had any brush with any Blue Whale group or with anyone who has.]
The central concern
So what, exactly, is the central concern? The fact that misperception (from widespread misinformation) affects behavior – in this particular case, potentially suicidal behavior. “Much if not most of the harm done by negative peer influences occurs through one’s misperception of the norm,” writes Wesley Perkins, one of the U.S.’s top researchers on social norms theory, which has a large and growing body of research. The Hobart and William Smith Colleges professor adds that “research has consistently shown peers to be one of the strongest influences on behavior, especially among youth.”
In another field, researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario wrote in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology that “exposure to peer social norms that favored risk taking predicted a significant increase in risk taking.” So exaggerating youth risk-taking and spreading both the hype and fear about that misinformation (or disinformation) only increases the risk to young people who are relying on perception rather than facts. It directly impacts their behavior, in this case in a negative direction.
Young people deserve the truth about their peers – as I wrote in 2011 when news reporters were calling cyberbullying an “epidemic,” which was completely untrue – for their own wellbeing. The more they hear the truth that the Blue Whale story is false and that the vast majority of their peers (what researchers call their “reference group”) are not manipulated by bizarre promoters of self-harm, the more likely it’ll be they’ll want to associate themselves with their peers’ media literacy. That’s what needs to go viral.
SIDEBAR: Latest takeaways from Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre
Here’s a summary of the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre’s perspective on the latest developments in the Blue Whale phenomenon, based on its investigative work in the interest of online safety through digital media literacy:
- “Blue Whale groups existed in Vkontakte [Russia’s largest social network site] since the end of 2015-beginning of 2016. They were part of a specific teen subculture, and the members were playing with the suicide and death theme (this does not mean that such play could not be really dangerous for emotionally/psychologically unstable youth). Not one of several authors/initiators [referred to in the news] could be identified – so the story of [game] ‘master/s’ is fake. That means that the ‘game’ (there is no game as such – just communication within the groups) is fake as well.
- “[Philipp] Budeikin was a member of several such groups and because of this he was easy prеy for the authorities when they felt pressure to do something.
- “The only 2 official statements about the story have been: 1. Budeikin was arrested on suspicion of being somehow linked to the Blue Whale, authorities are still investigating and have not [so far] found any real evidence of his guilt (an investigator in St. Petersburg [Russia]). 2. No special investigation unit for the Blue Whale was formed, as reported by some of the same websites ([they cite the Russian] Ministry of Interior).
- “The phrase ‘biological waste” [attributed to Budeikin in a BBC article and other news reports] appeared in a … Russian website [last November] claiming that they had interviewed Budeikin a few days before his arrest. There are several interesting things there: Budeikin said that he has bipolar disorder. Then he refutes the publications about 130 teens having taken their lives – they were just 17, he says [it’s not clear how he knew that]. The ‘biological waste’ phrase reappeared 12.12.2016 in the title of a story in another website based on an interview with a high ranking police officer. But it does not appear in the interview itself. The policeman is very cautious and repeats that they need more evidence to put Budeikin on trial. No other accomplices were identified, the policeman says.”
I hope that what emerges from this dark story is the understanding that, because of perception’s powerful influence on behavior, spreading false information can only increase the danger of what it’s describing. So challenge negative news about people, especially young people. They deserve the truth, and they deserve to be taught how to discern it. If nothing else is clear here, I hope it’s becoming clearer that media literacy is protective.
- On the “contagion” risk: “Irresponsible reporting on suicide overwhelmingly impacts the young,” according to a study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry in 2014. The same researcher, Dr. Madelyn Gould of the New York State Psychiatric Institute, found in an earlier study that “the prevalence of copycat suicide is up to four times higher in young adults than any other age group,” reported TheDailyBeast.com, referring to “social learning theory” (a cousin of social norms theory?). Note that this is about irresponsible reporting; viral misinformation or disinformation is at least an order of magnitude worse, right? Here are guidelines for responsible reporting of suicide from the suicide prevention field.
- On the importance of digital media literacy: “The Blue Whale game paradox, digital literacy and fake news” in the Parenting for a Digital Future blog at the London School of Economics
- “Youth Health & Safety Project” – and Perkins’s paper “Misperception is Reality: The “Reign of Error” About Peer Risk Behaviour Norms Among Youth and Young Adults” in the Journal and dozens of other studies documenting how perception of peer norms affects behavior
- “Only Kids Who Are Fools Would Do That!: Peer Social Norms Influence Children’s Risk-Taking Decisions” in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology
- In the first Blue Whale coverage I’ve seen linking to help for vulnerable youth, Wired UK quoted London School of Economics psychology professor Sonia Livingstone as saying that “The importance of media literacy to identify and reject fake news is vital for everyone, but especially for parents whose anxieties about their children’s safety make them too easily to fall prey to clickbait designed to trap them. The responsibilities of journalists to check their facts and sources has also never been so great, as the Blue Whale scare illustrates clearly.”
- “Navigating the News: New report details how youth express low trust in media, vary strategies to verify content” documents young people’s own fact-checking of information they encounter online. One of the report’s author’s, Amanda Lenhart, wrote the its findings “illustrate a variety of innovative strategies that young people are using to assess the veracity of the news stories they find online.” Amanda is senior research scientist at the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Here‘s the report itself.
- My own post in 2011 about the social norms research as it relates to bullying and cyberbullying: “Kids deserve the truth about cyberbullying”