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‘Blue Whale’ game: ‘Fake news’ about teens spread internationally

It has been reported as real news here in the U.S. in recent weeks, just as it was earlier in eastern Europe, and what a dark, disrespectful message it sends about young people in any country. I’m talking about coverage of the so-called “Blue Whale suicide game” that started in Russia. And while even the term “fake news” seems to be morphing into something else now, this is the real, original version that’s misleading and scaring parents.

Fake news countered by Safenet.bg

safenet.bg, Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre, works to counter fake news harmful to youth

It’s truly fake – a textbook example of how misinformation about online harm can itself be harmful. Georgi Apostolov of Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre told me this was a “manipulation” that “can really affect parents and vulnerable children.” He wrote me that his organization is very thankful they succeeded in countering the “wave of clickbaits” in Facebook, the most widely used social media service in Bulgaria, “but it cost us a week of countering their posts…. If you are curious you can check by FB search #синкит, #синийкит – to see how we were able to stop the copycat attempts in our country. It has much to do with digital media literacy, which is now our main focus of work,” Apostolov wrote. “What I was afraid of, and we had several cases reported to our [Internet] helpline, was that self-harming or suicidal teens would use the manipulation as an excuse to not speak about their real problems.”

The Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre, which is funded by a research institute in that country as well as the European Commission, runs one of Europe’s many Internet helplines for youth. Here’s the background on the Blue Whale story that Apostolov earlier provided a U.S. group of Internet risk prevention practitioners and researchers (which I’m sharing with his permission):

So-called ‘investigative journalism’

“It is a sensationalist fake started by Russian media back in May 2016 and [which] has been recently resuscitated not without some political aims. Based on ‘investigative journalistic stories’ a special working group under Putin elaborated a plan to be implemented by the Russian government for “prevention of teen suicides incitement. Doesn’t that sound familiar – Turkey cutting off social networks to fight child pornography? And several Russian politicians already mentioned ‘Western intelligence services’ and ‘Ukrainian nationalists’ as creators of the ‘horrible game’ with the aim to exterminate young Russian generation!

“We had to lead a real cyberwar in Bulgaria after the fake was blown up by our clickbait websites creating a panic among parents with headlines like ‘Monstrous online game leading to teen suicides approaching Bulgaria’…. The same happened in Latvia, Kirgizstan and some other countries.”

What real investigation turned up

Apostolov continued, “Yes, there were some groups in the Russian [social network site] Vkontakte visited by Russian teenagers playing around with the theme of death and scary talk about gurus (kurators) who were leading teenagers in 50 days through various challenges [culminating in] suicide. But they started in November 2015, [and by] May 2016 only one 21-year-old man was arrested for being such a guru and still is not sent to trial due to lack of evidence – he was just a member of one such group. And is it possible that over a year and a half no other suspects were found? Russian police and secret services are not known to be so inefficient, are they?”

Referring to the suicide figures cited in virtually all the “coverage” of this fake news,: “Another ‘fact” taken up by Russian media (not mainstream)” and cited in un-fact-checked articles in AOL.com and the Huffington Post, “is that in a period of 6 months (December 2015-May 2016) there were 130 teen suicides in Russia, and 80 of the teens were members of such groups – does this prove causality? Or was it that vulnerable teens were attracted to this ‘magic’ subculture? And Russia was always one of the leading countries with highest teen suicides in the world.”

Media literacy is protective

“It would be very bad if the fake is taken up by Western media,” Apostolov wrote, “because then Russian and other countries’ media will re-publish the stories and point at them as a proof that all this garbage is true.” Google News turned up a number of stories in the UK, as well as coverage in Asia.

Snopes, the U.S.-based fact-checking site, cites “an investigation by Radio Free Europe that found that no suicides had been definitively linked to these [“guru”-led] online communities. Snopes tells of one such community, “Sea of Whales,” the creator of which said “they created the game and the surrounding lore to drive traffic to the page.”

That sounds tragically familiar, right? Debunking false reporting for and with young people becomes supremely important if it’s negative, about their peers and could in any way elicit copycat behavior,  something about which suicide prevention experts caution us (see the guidance at ReportingonSuicide.org).

This just in…

After I posted the above, Georgi Apostolov reported that Russia’s long-running daily newspaper Izvestia itself later ran an investigative Blue Whale article debunking the story (in a bit of history, the Soviet government’s paper of record from 1917 until the government’s dissolution in 1991). Apostolov highlighted that between October 2016 and last month, there were “232,000 unique uses of known ‘BlueWhale’ hashtags in Russia; Russian social network Vkontakte identified “tens of thousands of bots,” not real people, using those hashtags; and, as if to confirm what the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre found, Sergei Grebennikov, head of the organization that administers Russia’s .ru domain, was quoted as saying that there were three types of users of the hashtags besides apparent members or followers: the curious trying to find out more about the trend, advertisers capitalizing on it to promote what they were marketing, and “professionals testing technologies for information dissemination.” [I read the Izvestia article in English, courtesy of Google Translate, but Apostolov thoughtfully sent these highlights in English.]

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. shinmai #

    It might’ve been fake in the U.S., but today there were multiple reports from several schools in the Vantaa region of Finland, where students *have* been part of a game exactly as the so-called “fake news” you reference describe. These reports have been verified by the police.

    March 22, 2017
    • Anne #

      Thanks for your comment. My post wasn’t really about the U.S., actually – only to say that “reports” of the game had shown up in this country. It was passing along what Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre discovered through its investigative work. The main point of their fine work and my post is that it would be good for parents, educators and others who read such stories questioned them – question their claims and sources, the media literacy part of Internet safety. If you’re in Finland, do you know if that country’s Safer Internet Centre or similar experts on e-safety have looked into the game and harm that has resulted? It would be great if they coordinated with Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Center.

      March 22, 2017

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