The blue whale challenge seems to have a particularly strong impact in India and Pakistan.


by DR RAJ PERSAUD

BRITISH teenager Molly Russell, who was just 14 years old, reportedly took her own life in 2017 after viewing disturbing suicidal content on Instagram, and her father said he believed the social media platform “helped kill my daughter”.

Bowing to pressure from the mainstream media and the UK government, Instagram boss Adam Mosseri last Thursday (7) said all graphic images of self-harm would be removed from the platform.

Meanwhile, Dr Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, an associate professor at the Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Delhi, India, is leading a team of researchers who have investigated a deadly social media ‘game’ referred to as the ‘blue whale challenge’.

Apparently originating in Russia, it appears to be having a particular psychological impact on people in India and Pakistan, and represents an example of how suicidal imagery might elude attempts by social media companies to censor self-harm.

‘Blue whale’ may have become the title as whales have been known to mysteriously beach themselves.

However, the blue whale challenge is shrouded in mystery and some journalists claim it might be a complete hoax. The BBC News website in January questioned whether the ‘game’ ever really existed under the headline: Blue Whale: What is the truth behind an online ‘suicide challenge’?

A series of self-harming tasks are disseminated via social media under the disguise of a ‘game’ designed to manipulate young people into killing themselves. The tasks must be completed within 50 days and gradually escalate in their self-destructive nature. The game is administered by so-called “curators”, who incite others to self-mutilate.

Curators and potential players find each other on social networking websites using code words that elude standard electronic filtering used to detect and eliminate suicide contact.

Tasks include waking up at odd hours, listening to disorientating music, watching scary videos and horror films, escalating into inflicting cuts and wounds on their bodies. Self-mutilation includes carving the outline of a blue whale on the skin with a razor, photographed as proof for the curator.

Sleep deprivation produced by the tasks renders players more susceptible to being influenced. These are the same ‘brainwashing’ techniques used by interrogators to extract information from suspects.

The final task is to commit suicide.

An academic study entitled Self‐harm Risk Among Adolescents and the Phenomenon of the ‘Blue Whale Challenge’: Case Series and Review of the Literature, published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences in 2018, reported five recent suspected cases of ‘blue whales’ managed by the staff of a paediatric hospital in Turin, Italy.

Dr Kumaraguru’s study found people giving out personal information such as email addresses and phone numbers so curators contact them. For example, 70 phone numbers were revealed by users in posts and comments about the blue whale challenge on a Russian social-networking site.

Under the headline Two girls found playing blue whale game in Jhelum, expelled from college, journalist Amir Kayani reported in Dawn News in 2017 that one of the two girls from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, had reached level 18 of the game, while the other was at level 22. Both had made carvings on their arms.

Dr Kumaraguru cites newspaper reports that the deadly game is having such an impact that access to one Russian social network has been temporarily banned in India.

His study entitled White or Blue, the Whale gets its Vengeance: A Social Media Analysis of the Blue Whale Challenge, and co-authored with Abhinav Khattar, Karan Dabas, Kshitij Gupta and Shaan Chopra, found that India ranks highest of all nations across the world, according to Google Trends, in searches related to the blue whale game in 12 months.

India was also second only to Russia in terms of actual reported suicides linked to the ‘game’.

In another investigation, A whale of a challenge for Pakistan and the World, by Ariba Khan, Ariba Moin, Huda Fatima, Syed Ather Hussain and Tooba Fatima Qadir, published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry, the authors argue that the game’s psychology ensnares participants. It boosts self-esteem as they climb the ranking of the tasks, giving them the attention and validation their life had been lacking, enhanced by an addictive and competitive desire to reach the next level.

Dr Kumaraguru and his team of researchers cite newspaper reports that curators of the game have been arrested for coaxing up to 16 schoolgirls to kill themselves. One administrator of a so-called suicide group had 32 under-age members.

The Chinese tech giant, Tencent, has found at least 12 groups on its instant messaging service using keywords related to the blue whale game.

Dr Kumaraguru and his team found that Instagram was not removing all the posts, but instead, if any of the sensitive hashtags were searched for, asked the user whether they need support. However, they could still see the posts.

In order to stop the spread of the challenge, a committee of experts has been set up by the government of India. It has also asked internet companies to remove all links related to blue whale challenge. The supreme court has additionally asked the Indian media to actively spread awareness.

*Dr Kumaraguru and his colleagues have built a Chrome browser extension which analyses and could help eliminate Twitter posts regarding the blue whale game. See https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/whale-finder/anhonnbmfmdiohhgdjdfopdmbgbamace?hl=en for more.