The Blue Whale Challenge, or why I’m sick of online sensationalism and ‘social media gurus’


By now you think one wouldn’t have to point how important fact-checking is. I mean it’s not like Huffington Post ZA was banjaxed for this just last month, but here we are again, it seems.

You might have seen a story yesterday morning on EWN about Blue Whale, “A new online suicide game targeting teens“.

The game is believed to be of Russian origin and reportedly instructs users to commit various acts of self harm over 50 days, culminating in the user committing suicide on the 50th day.

There have been numerous reports that have used the word “app” in reference to the title of the game but, after searching rather extensively, htxt.africa can find no evidence of such an app. And we’re not the only ones. Liquid Telecom in Kenya told Standard Media that according to its research it can find no evidence of the existence of any such game as a downloadable product.

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There are however suggestions that the ‘app’ may just be an online game that is shared among teens. But, if that is the case could we stop calling it the ‘Blue Whale suicide app’ and spreading fear that folks may or may not have downloaded an app to their smart device that instructs them to commit self-harm?

Tracing the timeline

Aside from a number of tabloid websites there is very little mention of this game on reputable news websites.

Thankfully the fact checkers at Snopes have a story on the Blue Whale game and (apologies for spoilers) reports that it encourages suicide are hazy at best.

Below is an excerpt from the Snopes report:

“The claim that the “blue whale” suicide game (named after the way whales sometimes beach themselves and then die) had resulted in a wave of suicides appears to have originated with a misinterpretation of a May 2016 story from the Russian site Novaya Gazeta. That article reported dozens of suicides of children in Russia during a six-month span, asserting that some of the people who had taken their lives were part of the same online game community on VK.com, a social media network based out of St. Petersburg, Russia.”

What the Snopes report reveals is that after one suicide, social media groups began to appear all using similar language.

One such group is known as F57 and was allegedly run by 21 year old Philip Budeikin who admitted to a Russian news website that he tried to entice young girls to commit suicide as a way of cleansing the Earth of “biological waste”. Snopes, grand destroyer of urban legends that it is, dug a bit deeper and found out that the Blue Whale game has yet to be officially implicated in any suicide investigations.

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Fact checking needs to come back into fashion

What concerns me as much as groups of kids contemplating suicide and written instructions about how to commit self-harm is our (our here meaning society at large) reluctance to check facts.

What brought this whole affair to our attention was an interview conducted by Mandy Weiner on 702’s Midday Report with managing director of Black Box Theory, Yavi Madurai which you can listen to below.

We urge you to listen to the audio above and compare it with the Snopes article we linked to earlier.

We have contacted Madurai but she spoke to us off the record and as such we cannot publish her comments here.

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So, we have to look at the facts and compare them with the statements that we do have on record.

Firstly, at the 03:31 mark in the interview, Madurai says the Russian creator “came forward last night”, which would be 10th May 2017. Odd, considering the only Russian who has claimed ownership of the Blue Whale challenge is the aforementioned Philip Budeikin – and he’s been in jail since November last year.

Let’s also tackle the Madurai report that Pokemon GO is not available in South Africa at 04:35. Apologies Yavi, but the game is available locally and has been since last October. We wrote the story. And a bunch of other South African sites did too.

And this is just what we gleaned from 5 minutes of listening to Wiener’s segment with her on radio. Have a gander at the video she speaks in that’s embedded in the article on EWN. Pay particular attention to what she says at 1:28 that contradicts what she said on the radio – that this is an ‘app’ and it’s available on ‘play stores and that kind of thing’, rather than being only the available in the dark web.

Simply put, Madurai’s pronouncements about the Blue Whale challenge seem badly researched and in some instances, flat out inaccurate.

And quite frankly we are sick of this.

This little technology news website is made up of four writers who took a few hours out of our day yesterday to verify these claims, make follow up calls and conduct research. After that we decided that the story was not worth covering because the hard ‘facts’ were murky at best. But after reading EWN’s story and listening to Madurai’s interview we couldn’t shut up any longer.

If you think for a moment I’m being petty take a look at some other reports about this ‘game’ from the likes of BuzzFeed, Parent Zone, NetFamily News and Webwise. With all of those sources pointing out the glaring irregularities with these reports do you really believe the reports you have seen over the last few days?

You need more convincing?

Lecturer at the University of Cape Town Jacques Rousseau and co-author of Critical Thinking, Science and Pseudoscience posted a story to his blog Synapses yesterday addressing the matter.

Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at UCT so we tapped him up to get his views on the Blue Whale saga and the statements that have been made in local media reports.

“I’ve connected to the UK and USA Android Play Store via VPN, and the only Blue Whale apps I can find there are either whale sounds to help one sleep, or spoofs of this alleged suicide challenge, with instructions like “Day 1: touch your nose”. So no, I haven’t been able to find the app, but I don’t have any reason to doubt its existence. I do have reason to doubt that it plays any causal role in suicides, when the far more likely hypothesis is that already suicidal teens are drawn to its narrative.

As for Madurai’s comments: a social media expert is something I have far more reason to doubt exists, seeing as the term is really a fancy word for “trend reporter”. While on the one hand saying she’s “not a psychologist”, she goes on to talk about how this game influences vulnerable teens, which is a psychological claim.

Not only is everything she says hearsay, it’s also complete hyperbole – for example, tapping into paranoia about Russia and hacking (in light of Trump and so forth), even though the game a) pre-dates those revelations and b) even the inventor of the alleged game claims the “credit” for far fewer deaths than the tabloids do. She also presents herself as a security expert, speaking of an un-deletable app that “steals your data” – again something that has not been reported by any credible publication.

We also hear that there’s a “neuroscientific something-something” that happens with the app, which is a sort of vague gesturing at a threat, using scary-sounding words, but while doing so making it clear that you don’t really have either evidence, or subject knowledge of what you’re talking about.

In consequence of this hyperbole and lack of knowledge, these reports are not ethical. They stoke panic, make parents paranoid, and detract focus from both the real causes of suicidal thoughts as well as potential ways we can help people who feel suicidal. They detract from human agency through conferring power on things that would not hold power if we spoke about them factually and rationally, instead of in the language of moral panics.”

Over the last two days we have spent hours trying to find evidence of this app and what we have found is nothing. This is odd because if this app is spreading to various parts of the globe like wildfire how is it doing that? If the news rooms of the world with the breadth of resources they have are not able to find this app, how exactly are teens?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know if the app exists and therefore we cannot confirm or deny these reports. But that’s the whole point: we don’t know. And the whole matter is such a convoluted mess thanks to sensational reporting that getting the facts is tough, and that’s the biggest fault in all of this.

Teen suicide is a very real problem but going after a seemingly non-existent ‘app’ in a bid to drum up awareness about suicide prevention is not the way to address the problem.

To be honest it all seems like sensationalism aimed at scaring the bejesus out of ill informed parents. The hysteria around it would be better put to use addressing the issue of adolescent depression and what support systems can be put in place to help those it affects.

  • Suicide is a very hard subject to broach at the moment especially since the release of Netflix Original series 13 Reasons Why. While I myself have not yet managed to watch the show I have seen the robust discussions it inspired on social media and it’s clear that this is a topic that needs to be discussed at length.
  • We’d also like to state that should Maduari have access to more facts and research beyond that published by Snopes we would love to be corrected.
  • Finally, if you are struggling with depression or anxiety we urge you to contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group and seek help.

 

 

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