Last year scary warnings circulated on social media asking parents, teachers, and police to beware of a hidden threat to children: a sinister online “game” that can lead to death. A typical message dated May 16 warned, “The Blue Whale ‘suicide game’ is believed to be a hidden online social media group which its main aim is to encourage our children to kill themselves. Within the group daily task are assigned to members have to do different tasks for 50 days. They include self-harming, watching horror movies and waking up at unusual hours, but these gradually get more extreme. But on the 50th day, the controlling manipulators behind the game reportedly instruct the youngsters to commit suicide. Please share and warn all other parents of the dangers of this game. We do not want any deaths related to the game within the UK.”
Debunking website Snopes traced the story back to a May 2016 article on a Russian news site which “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.” While it appears to be true that some of the teens used the same social media gaming sites, that does not logically imply that there’s any link between the deaths, nor that the site caused them. It’s more likely that depressed teens may be drawn to certain websites than it is that those websites caused their users to become depressed and/or suicidal. And, of course, on any wildly popular social media site (including Instagram, Facebook, or Pogo) a small subset of users will share common characteristics, including mental illness, simply by random chance.
I have written about the game several times, and have found little evidence that the game has actually caused suicides, or that it even exists. Instead it has all the hallmarks of a modern moral panic of the internet age.
Recently I was asked for my take on a seemingly troubling news story. It was a story from RT News–more on that shortly–titled “Blue Whale ‘suicide game’ ringleader jailed for 3 years in Russia.” The piece began, “The curator of the social media ‘suicide game’ dubbed ‘Blue Whale,’ Filipp Budeykin, has been sentenced to 3 years and 4 months in prison by a court in the Russian Siberian city of Tobolsk after pleading guilty. Budeykin, 22, was detained last year with the investigation concluding in June. He was initially suspected of 15 attempts of inciting teenagers to commit suicide across Russia but was eventually convicted on two counts.”
On the face of it, it seems to support the existence of the Blue Whale Game. After all, we have a (presumably real) name (and face) to the conspiracy. And surely a Russian court would not convict someone on such serious charges were they not true!
But there are some red flags.
For one thing, it’s still a Russian story. The Blue Whale story is, and has been, actively circulated by the Russian propaganda machine including RT News. I wrote about this last year, where the Russians are spreading myths and scares and rumors (see my article “How Russian Conspiracies Taint Social Activist ‘News'”). About 15 years ago I wrote about a Russian story of a grandmother alleged to have sold her grandchild for organs, and it turned out to be false. This is not to say that all news reports coming out of Russia are false, of course, but there is a well-documented tradition of “fake news” and sensationalist stories of Russian origin.
Second, like the news reports of the Blue Whale game itself, there’s very little independent fact-checking; all the different information about Budeikin, his trial, arrest, and imprisonment, traces back to one or two Russian news sources. All the other secondary stories, from BBC to IndiaTimes to Fox News, etc. all bottleneck back to these sources, they just cut and paste the same stuff. And of course the tabloids (Daily Mail, Sun, etc.) do their best to sensationalize the story.
Third, even if the story is true (I doubt that all of it is) and Filipp Budeykin really did plead guilty and get sentenced to three years, that doesn’t mean the Blue Whale game is real. All it means is that he organized some social media events that involved the
Blue Whale theme, and one or more (out of thousands) tried to (or did) kill themselves and he was pressured into pleading guilty. It doesn’t mean that he necessarily did what the legend describes. Put another way, if a little old lady microwaves her poodle to dry it off (as one old gruesome urban legend claims), that does not necessarily make the story true, because it has a life of its own, and a whole set of other factors.
We see exactly this pattern in two highly publicized deaths in the United States attributed to the game. The first involved the July 2016 hanging suicide of fifteen-year-old Isaiah Gonzalez, who was discovered by his father Jorge in their San Antonio home; the second was of an anonymous sixteen-year-old girl from Atlanta (dubbed Nadia in the news story) who allegedly killed herself in May.
As I described in my News and Comment piece in the current (January/February 2018) issue of Skeptical Inquirer, the deaths are (apparently) real; what’s in question is a clear link to performance of, or involvement in, any “Blue Whale Game.”
If even most of the story of Filipp Budeykin is true, it’s far more likely that this kid was railroaded than that he was the “Mastermind” and spent months or years of his life telling thousands of kids to do escalatingly violent and weird tasks each day with the idea to cause mass suicides. People plead guilty all the time to crimes they didn’t commit, or had only a small part in, because they fear a much worse sentence if convicted.
If this story is real, I’d expect coverage by independent news organizations. And I expect that when he’s released in three years we will hear much more about it. On the other hand if this is a largely or mostly bogus story, we likely won’t hear any more about it-except for being referenced in even more “news” coverage as evidence the whole thing is real.