Cybercrime

This article is written by Ansruta Debnath, a student of National Law University Odisha. This article is on the infamous Blue Whale challenge that allegedly caused teenagers to commit suicide all over the world.

This article was published by Sneha Mahawar.

Introduction

The Blue Whale Challenge was an online “game” that hit the headlines in 2016 for having caused hundreds of teenagers to commit suicide. The challenge was run on online social media groups and was accessible only through exclusive invites. It involved 50 challenges, the initial ones harmless but they increasingly became dangerous, involving self-harm. All that finally culminated in the last challenge which involved taking one’s life. The challenge supposedly started in Russia but then percolated into Ukraine, India, Bangladesh, China, Armenia, the United States, and other countries. This article attempts to debunk the popular misconception of the alleged game and explore the reasons why it became so sensationalized.

Probable origin

The game first came into the limelight when a Russian girl Rina Palenkova committed suicide in late 2015 after posting a selfie on social media. Her suicide was extensively discussed on social media platforms, especially VKontakte, Russia’s most used social network that had the feature of chat rooms. In these chat rooms, her suicide started being associated with different folklores and eventually whales. Yet the exact reason for her suicide was not discovered.

Within a month of the same year, two more suicides occurred. They were both teenage girls. Further investigation brought to light that both the girls were part of online chat rooms where images of Rina Palenkova and whales had been circulated.

The story gained worldwide attention after an article got published in Novaya Gazeta the next year. It was written by an investigative journalist Galina Mursalieva who claimed that there were around 130 deaths by suicides all over Russia that had occurred because of a so-called Blue Whale challenge. She alleged that through online chat rooms with the names of “f57” and “Ocean Whales”, administrators or curators assigned 50 tasks to all the participants. The participants were required to send proof in the form of photographs to the administrators to ensure that they were actually completing the tasks. The group administrators were alleged to be “predatory adults” who would handpick vulnerable young teenagers and cyberbully them into finishing the tasks. The ultimate goal of the game was to win by dying.

After the Novaya Gazeta article was published, suicides around the world started being connected to the Blue Whale challenge. The Indian media, throughout 2017, reported instances of teenage suicides and self-harm because of the game. The first one was the suicide of a 19-year-old T Varun from Hyderabad who killed himself by wrapping a plastic sheet around his face. The same followed in various other countries. 

Initiatives by the Government of India

Following mass panic and the “connection” between the suicides and the challenge, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology requested several search engines and social media platforms like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Instagram, and Whatsapp to remove the links to the game. Moreover, it issued an advisory in 2017 for parents to protect their children from the game. 

The advisory described the game as an abetment to suicide. Abetment to suicide has been described under Section 306 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. Anyone who incites a person to commit suicide shall, under Indian laws, be punished with ten years of rigorous imprisonment. They might also be liable to fine.

The Supreme Court of India directed the Government of India to ban the game. But the government said that would not be possible because the game was not an application. Consequently, the Supreme Court asked all state governments to raise awareness about suicides in schools so that teenagers did not fall prey to the game. It also asked the national television network, Doordarshan, to raise awareness on this issue. It also asked the government to respond to a petition that asked to firewall all such violent games.

Other governments

The Russian Government in 2017 introduced a law that penalised the creation of pro-suicide groups by imposing six years of imprisonment on offenders. The law also included criminal liability for abetting and inciting minors to commit suicide. 

In Bangladesh, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission urged people to contact a number if they found any information concerning the game. Moreover, To reduce suicides caused by the game, the Bangladeshi High Court placed a six-month ban on special night-time internet packages offered by several cell providers across the nation.

‘Tencent’, China’s internet service portal banned links to 12 alleged groups related to the Blue Whale Challenge.  

Arrest of alleged creator of the game

In 2016, 21-year-old Russian Philipp Budeikin confessed to creating the game in 2013 and was subsequently arrested. He stated that he created the game to wipe out people who he considered were “waste”. As a former psychology student, he was alleged to have used manipulative techniques to lure the teenagers into the chat rooms and play the game. Philip was during that time a musician and pled guilty to inciting 16 teenagers to commit suicide. His friends however claimed that he never created the game but simply hosted an online chat room that propagated the theory of Rina Palenkova and her death by the challenge. He apparently did that to get followers after which he used that platform to promote his music. But Philip was convicted and sent to prison for three years.

In 2017, another Russian by the name of Ilya Sidorov confessed to creating the game and said there were 32 teenagers in his online suicide group. 

Later in 2018, a Russian financial analyst was charged with being the ‘mastermind’ behind the game. Although he never confessed, Russian authorities alleged that he was responsible for “grooming 10 girls”. Grooming is a process of training and preparing a child for sexual activity.

The revelation of a hoax

Another investigative journalist, Evgeny Berg of Russian independent media organization Meduza decided to corroborate Galina Mursalieva’s claims. His research led him to the parents of a teenager who had committed suicide in December 2015, just after Rina Palenkova. The parents had come across a brochure that alleged “foreign forces” were attacking Russians and causing teenagers to commit suicide. The brochure claimed that 130 teenagers had fallen prey to the “foreign forces”. Berg claimed that Mursalieva’s data was based on this brochure and thus her article was incorrect. 

Furthermore, Alexandra Arkhipova, a professor in Folklore Studies at the Russian State University for the Humanities and her colleagues decided to join one of the chat rooms that allegedly were used for the game. They discovered that the “curator” of the group was simply teenagers who were waiting for the game to start.

Paolo Attivissimo, an Italian journalist and debunker of hoaxes, described the game as “a death myth dangerously exaggerated by sensationalist journalism”. Moreover, the Indian internet watchdog Centre for Internet and Society said that in all probabilities the game was a hoax that originated because of false and exaggerated reporting.

After a thorough investigation by national governments, including India, no conclusive link could be established between any of the suicides and the Blue Whale challenge. Analysis of computer chat history, call records, social media history etc. was done but nothing was able to create a connection. Even investigative journalists were unable to establish any link that proved that suicides were being caused by any such game. 

Thus in all probabilities, although the existence of the “Whale groups” were established, they were essentially copy-cats of the initial idea of the game. The game probably came into existence after repeated association with suicides and whales as well as the Mursalieva article that triggered widespread sensationalization of the idea.

Why whales

Most scholars and journalists said that whales got associated with suicide because of the phenomenon of beaching. Beaching or stranding is a phenomenon that involves whales surfacing and getting washed up ashore, resulting in their death. This has itself confused scientists for decades. Others claimed that the challenge alluded to lyrics of a Russian rock band, ‘Lumen’.

Even so, the primary attraction of the whale could have been the general appearance of the animal which is often described as lonely, sad and brooding. The groups dedicated to discussions of suicide and depression often circulated images of blue whales as a resonation of their own mental condition. 

Blue Whale challenge : an excuse

The Blue Whale challenge thus was never any game. It just became an easy excuse for teenagers to justify the suicides they were committing. Moreover, it started becoming a tool through which others could draw in adolescents with suicidal tendencies to accomplish their own nefarious activities. 

Public reaction

Mass hysteria

The initial public reaction was mass hysteria. The story about the challenge spread like wildfire and as more media outlets started speculating that the suicides were a cause of the game, more instances of such platforms cropped up over the internet. This sensationalization by tabloids could be the reason why so many people fell prey to mass hysteria. By definition, mass hysteria is the phenomenon that spreads collective illusions of either real or imaginary threats through rumours and fear. The entire incident of the challenge started with connections being drawn between suicidal, suicidal tendencies and whales which culminated into the infamous article. 

The renewed conversation about suicide

The Blue Whale challenge renewed conversation over adolescent suicides which are alarmingly high. The challenge, it seems, was an easy explanation of the complex problem that involves teenagers being driven to commit suicide. Instead of focussing on the cause of suicide, it becomes important to analyse and understand why the teenagers were being driven to commit suicide in the first place. Because, if the game did exist, it could draw in people only when they had contemplated killing themselves already. In general, suicide-prone teenagers have a mental health issue that might be triggered by the tough time they have coping with stress, peer pressure, family turmoil etc. The situation becomes such that some adolescents feel that the problems they are facing are permanent and see ending their life as the only solution, when in fact the problems are merely temporary and always pass. 

India currently holds a share of 17.8% of worldwide suicides. According to NCRB data, 10,159 students died by suicide in 2018, an increase from 9,905 in 2017, and 9,478 in 2016. 2019 reported a further spike of 3.4 per cent suicide rates.

As a reaction to the challenge, hundreds of organizations worldwide launched public awareness campaigns to raise awareness over suicides among teenagers and issued guidelines to parents to help them realise if teenagers were having suicidal behaviours. In Brazil, a ‘Pink Whale Challenge’ originated which aimed at encouraging positive behaviour. 

The Facebook page called Baleia Rosa (Pink Whale in Portuguese) was started in April of 2017 by a publicist and graphic designer. The page gave out daily tasks that all promoted love and good and helped in countering loneliness and depression to more than three lakhs of followers. It included tasks such as writing how you would help someone who is being bullied, smiling at everyone you pass for an entire day, posting on your social media pages with the words ‘I am beautiful,’ learning something new from an internet tutorial, forgiving someone, apologising to someone, talking to someone who doesn’t talk much, and so on. In essence, the Pink Whale Challenge encompassed everything exactly opposite to the Blue Whale Challenge and was even endorsed by the Brazilian Government. 

Legal implications 

Although the challenge turned out to be a hoax, it is important to analyse its legal implications, especially in the Indian context. There are various laws in India that can be used to challenge the legality of the Blue Whale challenge. Moreover, even if the game is of foreign origin, according to the ‘effects doctrine, crimes committed outside territorial boundaries of India can be prosecuted here since its effects are there within the territory.  

Indian Penal Code, 1860

Abetment to suicide (Section 306) of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 has already been mentioned before. Since the target audience of the game was mainly teenagers, Section 305 (abetment to suicide of child or insane person) can also find application. Apart from that, charges against the proprietor of the game could be brought under Section 507 which penalizes criminal intimidation. 

Information Technology Act, 2002

Given that this was an online challenge, the Information Technology Act of 2002 can easily be evoked. Section 69A of the Act allows the blocking of online information by the Central Government if said information threatens the integrity and sovereignty of India. Furthermore, Section 66F, which talks about cyberterrorism, could also find use.

Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012

The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012 finds application cause of the target audience being mostly teenagers. Section 16 of the said Act punishes anyone that abets or attempts to abet a child to commit an offence under Indian laws. 

Conclusion

Thus it is quite clear that the challenge was a product of wrongful speculation and false reporting. Connecting dots that did not exist created mass hysteria and panic. But a positive outcome of this entire incident was the spotlight that fell on the reasons for teenager suicides. After the blue whale theory got debunked, people were forced to address the real yet scary reason why the game felt such an attractive option to so many young adults worldwide.

References 


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