A panic that began in Russia due to the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ has spread far beyond that country’s borders, as global media reports accounts of the suicide that allegedly accompanies it.
Then, last week, various Chinese- and English-language media outlets in China began running stories on the game’s alleged arrival in the country.
According to the South China Morning Post, Guangdong-based tech-giant Tencent recently announced its security team had discovered Blue Whale groups on their QQ social media platforms. The company has supposedly closed 12 such groups – some of which included members from Guangdong, according to GRT Radio.
Cyber police in Jiangsu also announced Friday that three groups related to the Blue Whale Challenge were removed from QQ out of fear they may be dangerous. According to Global Times, the founders stated that they had no interest in provoking people to commit suicide and simply made the groups “for fun.”
Though Tencent has blocked the term on QQ, a search on Weibo still turned up numerous articles about the game.
The Blue Whale Challenge was reportedly created by 21-year-old Russian psychology student Philipp Budeikin back in 2013 and asks participants to complete a set of ‘challenges’ over the course of 50 days.
According to a myriad of related reports online, these tasks are assigned by administrators and range from the mundane, like waking up at strange hours and watching horror movies, to the extreme, including self-harm and body mutilation. At the end of the 50 days, players are reportedly encouraged to commit suicide.
The game’s name is supposedly based on the idea that whales sometimes beach themselves and then die.
Philipp Budeikin claims he thought he was ‘cleansing society’ by creating the game
In the time since the Blue Whale Game made its debut in the online world, a lot has changed. Officials in countries from the Americas, Africa and Europe have (purportedly) linked teen suicides to the game, police in the UK have issued a warning to parents and Budeikin is now sitting in a Russian jail cell on charges of inciting “at least 16 school girls” to end their lives. According to numerous reports, at least 130 suicides in Russia have been linked to the game since 2015.
But is the Blue Whale game really a threat to Chinese youth and, more importantly, is the game even real? Or is its ascent into the public consciousness the result of media-fed hysteria? While only time will tell, we are inclined to lean towards the latter scenario.
For starters, the most frequently cited statistic in this story is questionable at best. While publications claim 130 suicides have been linked to the challenge in Russia, Radio Free Europe (RFE) has pointed out that not a single death has been definitively linked to the game. Furthermore, RFE reportedly "investigated the phenomenon and tried to participate under aliases, but got nowhere," according to a story by the Globe and Mail.
The Blue Whale Game is also listed as unproven by the hoax-monitoring website Snopes, which found that although suicides had indeed occured in Russia over the past six months, there is little evidence their deaths are tied to the online challenge.
Hoax busters Snopes has declared the Blue Whale game unproven
Arguably the largest red herring in the entire Blue Whale saga is the fact that no publication we accessed addressed how the group of Russian 'mentors' responsible for the game’s rise could possibly be behind exporting it to English-, Spanish-, Swahili- and now Chinese-speaking countries, not to mention the many language-diverse European countries the game has reportedly spread to.
A potential answer is that copy-cat groups have emerged, mimicking the original Russian version of the online death game. If that is the case, however, then the media's assertion that the Blue Whale Challenge is some kind of pre-planned, multinational online cult set to end teenage lives around the world seems quite premature.
WIRED recently spoke to London School of Economics Professor Sonia Livingstone about the sensationalized accounts of the game, where she stated: “The importance of media literacy to identify and reject fake news is vital for everyone, but especially for parents whose anxieties about their children’s safety make them too easily to fall prey to clickbait designed to trap them. The responsibilities of journalists to check their facts and sources has also never been so great, as the Blue Whale scare illustrates clearly.”
It’s also worth remembering that such panics have happened in the past, one example being the moral hysteria in the 1980s over rumors the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons was promoting suicides, murders and other ungodly acts. This unwarranted fear was eventually debunked.
While there is little doubt people have killed themselves due to online goading, verifying the actual reach and existence of the Blue Whale Challenge appears to be easier said than done. Perhaps the fear behind the game is best summed up by Canadian newspaper columnist Russell Smith:
“What the Blue Whale myth reflects, really, is not a suicide trend among teenagers, but a creeping fear that the Internet itself can spy on us and control us.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs immediate help, please reach out to one of the following suicide hotlines located in China.