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

[Thank you to all commenters on this post! I’ve just posted an update (5/17/17) that I hope you’ll read before commenting further here.]

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 – e.g., 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 ‘magical’ subculture? And Russia was always one of the leading countries with highest [number of] 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, though now just a daily paper, from 1917 until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991 Izvestia was its government’s paper of record). Apostolov highlighted that between October 2016 and last month, there were “232,000 unique uses of known ‘Blue Whale’ hashtags in Russia; Russian social network site 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.]

Related links

Click here for an update to this post.

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55 Comments Post a comment
  1. Antonio #

    You don’t need to worry about this because to do such of stupid challenges you must to want to do this. That means worry about yourshelves.

    September 3, 2017
  2. Raj #

    @anne …
    Really informative and interesting… I’m raj from India.. i saw hundreds of posts about this blue wale game as well…on social media…they same same thing as others are talking about it here.. at the end the person he/she has to kill themselves because it’s one of the last task of the game… I was worries about it but your comments did cleary that’s it’s real and happening in all over the world… not just a single game.. I saw thousands of posts about all kind of online tricky games kids are dying into and being in stress for not to complete the level till the end… So I come to one conclusion that “we have to educate our surrounding by informing that not to participate in such things.. and the only way to do it to inform the governments of all the world to do a publicity in television and radio… That might hepl people to understand what to do or not…. I don’t have no contacts to that level, if I could I’ll definitely do it.. and I’ll try … Definitely a worth of thinking and worry about this matter as it is really a important problem… I’ll leave my email address, so if any data found please forward it to me so I can send it to Indian government as well…
    Raj,
    India,
    Hopping for the reply as soon as possible..
    Rajesh.soneja@gmail.com

    August 4, 2017
  3. John Doe #

    Hello Anne,

    I have read your article, and even though it is interesting… I cannot truly believe how this whole matter can be declared by someone as “fake news”. Does it really matter if 2 girls committed suicide or if the actual number was 160? Does it make it not so very important?
    One person was arrested, true… just one. It went viral, how do you pretend to stop it? There were two cases in Argentina and from the comments I have read… one in Chile and some in Brazil as well… and you are asking them if the cases are truly linked to “the so called blue whale game”?
    I do not know the Bulgarian Safer Internet Center… but how can you be so sure that their investigations are so precise and disregard everything else?
    I honestly believe you are misinforming adults here. We know the risks of allowing a kid access to the internet, and it is our duty and responsibility as parents to let them know about them and warn them about their true danger.
    If you have a different opinion about this whole matter, I do not think that implying that it is not such a great deal is really productive… the blue whale game is ONE example of the thousands menaces the internet presents to kids who are prone to manipulation…
    The internet is a very dangerous place for kids. The kids who played this game, I seriously doubt they were mentally healthy kids. I am not saying they were insane, but they were probably depressed, left behind kids who were easy to manipulate. It truly does not matter if there are blue whale mentors around… what matters is that kids died… no matter how many… kids died.
    If all the news are fake or so uninformative… have the Bulgarian Safer Internet Center, which seems to be only reliable investigators, take care of all the internet news like this one and informing the whole world’s population about what news are true or fake.

    May 26, 2017
    • Anne #

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment and questions. You’re absolutely right that even one suicide is a terrible tragedy and that we have a responsibility to let our children know when they’re in danger. They deserve the facts, and I think I did a better job of explaining why – and answering your question about the danger of “fake news” like this – in my followup post (see the part under “The central concern”). Also, suicide prevention experts stress the importance of responsible, truthful reporting of suicide (see this article for a full explanation). It may also be helpful to know from one of the US’s top scholars in youth victimization what does and doesn’t work in Internet safety education – here‘s a piece about a talk on that given by Prof. David Finkelhor at University of New Hampshire. But it’s my next post on the Blue Whale phenomenon that really gets at the danger of spreading misinformation. You also asked about the Safer Internet Centre in Bulgaria. They are a member of the European Commission-funded INSAFE network of Internet safety education organizations in 32 countries, and they’re the organization that has done the most investigative work on the Blue Whale subject (for the purpose of protecting vulnerable youth) I’ve seen out of Europe, which is closest culturally and geographically to the origin of the story and possibly has the most at stake. Please let me know if this and my followup post helped to answer your questions.

      May 27, 2017
      • John Doe #

        Hello Anne, thanks for replying.

        All I am saying is that we will never know the REAL truth of anything. All we can do is try our best to protect our loved ones and share, the way we can, the tools to help out others.

        It is not just the “blue whale game”… that is just a name. Now there seems to be a different one, not surely where it is starting… called “El abecedario del diablo”, I would assume the translation is “Satan’s alphabet”, and tomorrow there will be something else… and so on. Once something goes viral… it is very hard to stop it. You call it a phenomenon… I call it inhumanity.-

        Maybe the media made up a few details or twisted the whole story to make it a big one? Possibly true… but the game does exist and even if only one person was arrested and if only one known girl actually committed suicide because of this game… I think that is enough to be extremely alert.-

        All safety tips are accepted… but calling this fake news? I do not agree… why? Because at the end of the day… nobody has the absolute truth about anything.-

        May 27, 2017
  4. The kid is going to trial now in Russia, so you may want to consider updating this page. As it IS REAL, and kids HAVE died.

    May 16, 2017
    • Anne #

      Thanks for your comment. Just posted an update that addresses your point here.

      May 17, 2017
  5. D #

    This can be labeled “fake news” because Ann pointed out , there is more going on for people to commit suicide in most cases not all. When kids arw so envolved in these games as they are and just following the game as it is suppose to be player they have no idea what is actually going on. Why would anyone invent such a game? If you are so miserable then get help or say good bye but leave the rest alone. The creator should be investigated.

    May 13, 2017
  6. Funny how things change. By all counts, you are now the source of fake news. Blue Whale is causing teen suicides. Revise your title (unless its click-bait of-course)

    May 9, 2017
    • Anne #

      Thanks for your comment. Here‘s an update on this post in case you’re interested.

      May 17, 2017
  7. Artsyone #

    In the U.K. Schools are now taking action to warn parents as children are admitting to taking part or “winning”. Your article is very unhelpful when this is actually going on. Teachers in the U.K. Are very concerned. Please show your support and amend this article to show that this is now a very real problem. Mental Health is obviously an issue, the kids playing are obviously suffering… normal kids don’t play these “games”. Please educate yourself on mental health and suicide and stop writing articles that demean both.

    May 5, 2017
    • Anne #

      Thank you for your comment. Teachers and school administrators are to be commended for their concern, as are you. I just hope that what they’re alerting parents to is the need to talk with their children about their own experiences in and with digital media and not reflexively believe what they hear or read in the news. Here‘s my just-posted update on this story, including why spreading misinformation increases young people’s risk online and offline.

      May 17, 2017
  8. Pablo #

    Here in Chile, is know how the official news can be so irresponsible with the emitted news, and the social-media moral panic is rising cause that oficial news, and by the same people’s fear spreading some flavor of the listened history in every social media. I hope more sites writing about the real truth behind all this and educating people on how not make the things worst than some mental Illnesses or human behaviors can be.

    May 1, 2017
  9. Francisca #

    En Chile se dice que hay una victima…como puede ser??? si el juego es falso??

    April 27, 2017
    • Anne #

      Francisca, forgive me for responding in English. The first response has to be a question: If you’re referring to an actual case in Chile, have the people handling the case established a direct link between the suicide and a “game”? Even if a link has been confirmed, suicide prevention experts tell us that suicide is complex, very rarely has just one cause, and the main cause is most often untreated mental illness. Therefore, even if a link has been confirmed, do the authorities know if mental illness predated involvement in the game? Other things to consider is what Hannah in Brazil wrote about: the possibility of “fake news” or falsehoods that start in one place being turned into a cruel reality somewhere else, which might be the case where you are IF a clear link has been made. According to the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre, this “news” started in Russia a year ago and has moved at least across the Atlantic since then. Apologies for all the questions, but there’s safety in asking questions like these. In case useful to anyone here, the UK Safer Internet Centre just released “Advice for those concerned about the ‘Blue Whale’ hoax.”

      April 27, 2017
  10. hannah.haha #

    It may have been “fake” at the start, but the very thing they were afraid of has happened. Copy cats in several countries have picked it up and for those countries the nightmare has become quite real. From what I can see, Brasil has been the most affected, if only because they were able to prove a connection. So, now instead of addressing the validity of the original reporting, groups interested in helping need to accept the reality. This is the absolute worst thing fake news can accomplish… turning itself into reality.

    April 23, 2017
    • Javier #

      Yes, im agree with that. The wame was fake just at the start. But now its real and we can see cases in S America.

      April 28, 2017
      • Anne #

        Javier, I’m curious: are these games in Latin America (are there more than one?) native to your region – are they in Spanish or Portuguese? And have cases of suicide actually been linked to them as a factor in the death(s)? Sometimes news reporters don’t ask these questions – or understand the complexity of suicide and make that clear in their coverage. To protect the public, suicide prevention experts in many countries provide guidelines for reporters covering the subject. (For anyone interested) here’s an example in my country: http://reportingonsuicide.org/

        April 28, 2017
  11. João Keker #

    Now every suicidal kid will claim to be playing the blue whale game and this will be the new moral panic of the XXIst century

    April 19, 2017
    • Anne #

      Exactly what as many of us as possible need to keep working to counter as best we can. NetFamilyNews.org has been trying to replace fear with facts since early in the last decade, and there’s encouragement in seeing others recognize the signs of a moral panic. (Americans are always interested to hear about the comic book scare that led to congressional hearings in the 1950s and the Dungeons & Dragons panic of the ’80s that the New York Times just reported on). This is not to say that the Blue Whale so-called game is anything like comic books or the Dungeons & Dragons game or that it can’t have tragic impacts. It’s only to say that fear and panic are not helpful; they distract from getting at real causes such as mental illnesses and treatment of them. Suicide prevention experts tell us that suicide extremely rarely has a single cause, and people who are suffering deserve close, loving attention not misplaced fear. I suspect you know this, João. I’m just stating it here for anybody following this thread. Thanks for commenting.

      April 19, 2017
  12. Arkymedes #

    4 cases of it in Brazil :(

    What a sick joke and an alarming exemple of fake news leading to real consequences.

    April 19, 2017
  13. Katy Poenaru #

    I am sorry to “disappoint” you but this game is a killer and children had comit suicide in my country recently. Only today a child 11 years old committed suicide as a result of this game. So please, don’t make fun of this.

    March 28, 2017
    • Anne #

      Katy, thank you for your comment. That is so terribly sad to hear. Certainly no one’s making fun of any such outcomes of the “game” here. This post was about widening the findings and visibility of the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre’s work on this issue.

      April 3, 2017
  14. dom #

    polish mainstream media picked that up from the sun, and then even polish ministry of education issued a letter to schools about it (saying that it’s a video game btw, so they didn’t even get the fake news right), i cannot believe how this can be happening in 21st century…

    March 24, 2017
  15. petteri #

    In finland its real

    March 22, 2017
  16. 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
    • W #

      The kids had heard about the game, NOT taken part in it.

      March 23, 2017

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