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When ‘fake news’ becomes real: What next with ‘Blue Whale’?

The term “fake news” has largely (and rightfully) been discredited because, at best, it’s simplistic and, at worst, used to dismiss or discredit legitimate news providers. But there is such a thing as real fake news: misinformation and disinformation that goes viral in this digital age and then leads to real tragedy.

SAVE logoSo the “Blue Whale” story is no longer about “fake news.” To Dan Reidenberg, managing director of SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), it’s about what we do as a society next – how any society deals with alarming misinformation that started in another unknown culture and country and becomes a public health threat just because of its ability to attraction attention and exploit fears. Because two suicides in the U.S. have – as NJ1015.com in New Jersey has responsibly reported – “suspected links” to “Blue Whale.” Even though we don’t know and may never know if they’re linked to involvement in a “game” or just news coverage of it.

‘No need to panic’

Importantly, Newsweek and CNN both quote Dr. Reidenberg, a suicide prevention adviser to Facebook, as saying, “There is no need to panic, because this is not yet a crisis, rather a caution to alert people in advance.” What he called me about yesterday was the question no one has the answer to yet: how we get out in front of viral stories so cynically dark and focused on youth that they spread fear among adults and curiosity and/or rebellion among youth, particularly vulnerable youth. How can we grow understanding among adults that keeps them – from the news media to police to educators to parents – from contributing to what Dan and other suicide prevention experts call “the copycat effect,” or suicide contagion. That’s the real danger of this originally fake news.

As Newsweek’s Max Kutner put it in a video about a “cluster” of youth suicides in Colorado Springs, “perhaps the most troubling risk factor … is other suicides, and young people have been found to be more susceptible to contagion in suicide than other demographics.”  

This is a painful but essential social experiment. We don’t know the result yet, but I completely agree with Dr. Reidenberg that we need to get out in front of it. What the result will be is going to take a collection of expertise: suicide prevention, journalists, media literacy experts, educators, parents and especially youth. We must not leave out youth survivor experience, voice and leadership.

Media literacy + social literacy = safety

Together we need to get out in front of the viral effect of clickbait and its rewards: financial and social capital. Both media literacy and social literacy are key to a positive outcome for this social experiment. These literacies need to catch up, because fact-checking and bystanders have life-saving powers now.

Please consider how important it has become not to believe the worst about kids’ online experiences. Working with them to help each other, seek the facts and debunk false reporting is effective education in this news cycle and for their lives ahead. It both protects them and equips them to protect vulnerable peers – in the face of fake news, actual news, live-streamed events, etc. – because they’re often the first to know when peers are especially vulnerable.

Questions to ask

If you, your kids or students read coverage of a suicide, together look at ReportingonSuicide.org, the protective guidelines that suicide prevention experts created for the news media and see if the reporter honored them. As for “Blue Whale,” look for any mention of police verification of what the reporter says or what their sources say about the role of the “game” (it’s not a game) – usually the coverage of a tragic event like this comes well before an investigation is complete. If the investigation was done, was there evidence, in the device(s) the child used, of communication with an actual person (such as a manipulator or “curator”) and not just references to “Blue Whale” in Web search history (search history could indicate curiosity rather than actual participation)? Was there evidence of other forms of self-harm? If a police department near you releases a warning to parents, ask the department if it’s based on actual investigative work or on news reports and the good intention of preventing any possible harm. If the latter, work with your kids or students to get to the facts, ask young people what they’ve heard and what they think about this story – how it affects them and what they’d do to help if it troubled a peer. In my earlier posts, I’ve shared lots of links to solid information for you to consider together.

Related links

  • My first post on the Blue Whale fake news last March, and my second in May on the core concern
  • Social Media and Children’s Mental Health: A Review of the Evidence,” by Emily Frith, Education Policy Institute
  • “Researchers examine when people are more susceptible to fake news” from NPR
  • The Safer Internet Center in Bulgaria, about which I wrote in my first two posts on this subject, has had a lot of success in shutting down misinformation and panic in their country, partly through working with the police, who link callers and reporters to the accurate information in the Center’s Web site. The work never ends, though, because the Center has found that “still some 70% [of young Bulgarians] still believe it is a real story. But the positive development is that we have another 30% who are able to argue with their peers and say it is a fake,” the Center’s director, Georgi Apostolov, wrote me. He added: Last week Bulgaria “had a new Blue Whale wave (though not so strong as in February-March) because of the story of the suicide of the girl in the US who happened to be of Bulgarian origin. And most of the websites omitted the part in the US media coverage that it is not clear whether this is a real game or a rumor but which can be dangerous for vulnerable teens [he’s referring to coverage like this]. So we repeated the action – posting comments with a link to our article to every single sharing of the story. We’ll see what the effect is.”
  • Great work has been done in Italy too, by journalist, author and game designer Andrea Angiolini – more on that here.
  • “Real things teachers can do to combat fake news” from the PBS News Hour
  • Here’s some unusually responsible reporting on the subject at GoodHousekeeping.com
  • cautionary commentary on “fake news” by ConnectSafely.org’s Larry Magid in the San Jose Mercury News
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