British tabloid The Sun this month published two stories about a Russian "suicide game" that is allegedly linked to the deaths of 130 teenagers.
A spokesperson for the Sun told BuzzFeed News, "The Sun believes it has covered this story, which is of public interest, in a suitably sensitive manner. The facts were sourced from one of Russia's most reputable publications, part-owned by Evening Standard and Independent proprietor Alexander Lebedev."
The game has been nicknamed "Blue Whale" by the media. But there does not appear to be any concrete proof that kids who took their own lives were actually playing it.
The panic began in November 2015, Rina Palenkova went viral after she posted this photo of herself to Russian social media website VK — with the message "goodbye" — shortly before killing herself by jumping in front of a train.
Palenkova had apparently shared VK posts about depression and suicide before her death.
The pages Palenkova shared, many of which have subsequently been removed from VK, had gained thousands of followers by posting messages about mental health, violence, and death.
The Novaya Gazeta article suggested that Blue Whale challenges may have been connected with up to 130 children killing themselves over a period of six months.
"We counted 130 suicides of children that occurred in Russia from November 2015 to April 2016," the article reads. "Almost all of them were members of the same group on the internet."
The article was criticized by other publications. Meduza said the story "appeals to their (the writer's) own opinions" and criticized the article's failure to reach out to administrators of "Blue Whale" groups. They say that the psychologist cited in the study was the son of the author.
Novaya Gazeta responded to the criticism. The publisher has explained that the figure of 130 deaths came from the evidence of networks of parents. It has also said that its attempts to contact the people behind these Blue Whale communities were unsuccessful before publication. Days later, deputy editor of Novaya Gazeta, Sergei Sokolov was suspended from Novaya Gazeta along with a colleague. This was for allegedly "unacceptable methods" used in researching a follow up article to the Blue Whale piece.
Admins in some of the "blue whale" communities then began to play into the mystery surrounding them. They began posting a lot of cryptic messages to make them seem exclusive and secretive.
The "Blue Whale" communities soon caught wider attention. The website Lenta.ru published its own investigations into suicide communities.
Lenta reported that they spoke to admins, some of whom said they used the game to reach teens who needed help. Others appeared to suggest they intended to monetize the groups, charging people to place adverts in them.
The Lenta article says that teens may have killed themselves, but does not address Novaya Gazeta's reporting of 130 victims.
The Lenta investigation also concluded that the suicides that had taken place were unlikely to be result of the Blue Whale groups.
In response to the articles, VK users began publishing their own theories on what was happening. Users blamed Russian media for failing to understand internet culture and sensationalizing an online joke.
One example of VK users sensationalizing the "Blue Whale" games was in December 2015, when a list purporting to name VK users who had become victims of the Blue Whale game.
Many of the listed users then announced that they were actually alive by posting messages, or, in one example, rickrolling followers.
That's when English-speaking publications also began to cover the groups.
In late May 2016, a police investigation into the alleged game was launched.
Several months later, in October, Phillip Budeykin, who was reportedly known online as "The Fox" and had been featured in Lenta's article as a "Blue Whale" administrator, was arrested for inciting children to commit suicide, with 15 victims listed. Subsequent reports suggests Budeykin changed his story about his involvement. He apparently said that he was looking to help teens with suicidal thoughts but also that he created groups to "clean the world of bio-waste." It was also claimed he said he just did it for likes. As of April 2017, Budeykin is in a pre-trial prison.
In February 2017, Russian media began reporting that the game had picked up interest again.
Reports cited an uptick in Google searches for the term "whales". The game was this time described as a 50-day challenge, involving assignments and eventual suicide.
Around this time, Radio Free Europe said one of its reporters had infiltrated a community, posing as a 15-year-old.
The article states that the reporter was asked to self-harm by a so-called curator of an online group. The article however remains skeptical that there is an actual death group phenomenon.
In March this year, parents on Facebook shared messages, they said were forwarded to them by school teachers who it was claimed had been contacted by the police, advising them to keep their children inside due to a planned mass suicide organized by "whale" communities. Police in several Russian regions told tjournal that the posts were fake.
In March 2017, Life.ru published an article suggesting the challenge had "spread" to other countries in Europe. The author reported comments from local experts and cited Google search terms to show rise in "Blue Whale" groups.
The article also cites YouTube videos and tweets about the "Blue Whale" game.
The legend has also begun to be discussed by Russian politicians and civil servants.
Children's Rights Commissioner Anna Kuznetsova said that 2016 saw a 57% rise in child suicides, and said that one of the main reasons was "group death" games. Speaking in reaction to this information, Evgeny Andreev, a senior figure at the High School of Economics, said the source of this statistic was unclear as goverment statistics on suicides are not released until May. Andreev went on to say that teen suicide rates in Russia over the past five years have decreased .
The story is also resurfacing in English-speaking publications, who use the 130 figure and cite the Novaya Gazeta piece. For instance, the articles about the Blue Whale suicide game in The Sun this month cite the deaths of two teens who died after falling from an apartment block in Ust-Ilimsk, Russia.
There has also been a backlash on VK. "Anti-death" groups have started appearing, giving themselves names that parody the Blue Whale myth and posting happy, wholesome content.
However, speaking to BuzzFeed News, a self-described administrator of one of the largest anti-Blue Whale groups, who asked to be named as "Belaya Tuchka," said they had created the page "for likes."
"I just wanted to join the hype," they said. "VK is dealing well [with the suicide content problem] without anyone’s help. I don’t think of monetization yet. Just launched a bot for the community while the hype is still around."
Those joining the groups also seem to be mothers and concerned outsiders trying to help those affected by the Blue Whale craze.
"I have a child myself," said Stanislava, a member of an anti-Blue Whale group. "I’m afraid to even imagine the world without my daughter. I’m against kids dying. Several teens lost their way playing this game and people are trying to talk them out of this. But without avail."
Speaking to BuzzFeed News, a member of VK's press relations team said that the company was actively shutting down groups and pages that post content that speculates about suicide.
"On a regular basis, VK blocks communities that are dedicated to describing ways of committing suicide or vindicating this topic," they said. "Using our entire arsenal, we fight against these situations by regularly monitoring the site, as well as responding to signals coming from users and the regulator Roskomnadzor. These communities are blocked indefinitely without any right to appeal. Moreover, experts from 'Your Territory' psychological assistance fund are participating in the monitoring of the social network in order to identify and restrict access to profiles and communities that have a negative and dangerous influence on children and teenagers. Psychologists help to quickly provide support to teenagers who are in a critical psychological situation.”
The spokesperson also confirmed that VK is developing an algorithm to automatically block this kind of content.
If you are feeling at risk of suicide or if you are worried about someone else call the Samaritans: 116 123 (UK) / 116 123 (ROI)
If you’re in the United States you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).