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[ANALYSIS] BlueWhale: a greater threat to journalistic reputations than to teens

Any suicide that isn’t preceded by careful deliberation, in full knowledge of its consequences, is undoubtedly a sad thing. Other suicides would often be tragic also, as much as I respect the freedom to make that choice, outside of the moralistic prescriptions of societal norms.

Teen suicide would often not be preceded by that deliberation. We’re more vulnerable then, and might be inclined to overestimate our misery, and underestimate our prospects for the future.

As far as I’m concerned, that means that parents, friends, teachers – everybody should be particularly attentive to not encouraging mystical thinking about life and its travails.

Just as our job was to remind kids that you can’t summon a Mexican demon that might kill you (and in doing so, teach some basic physics), we should also take examples like the “Slipknot Killer” Morne Harmse as a reminder of how we should ensure that proper psychological support is in place for our kids, rather than partly avoid that responsibility by appealing to nonsense about the “occult”.

As I said in the #CharlieCharlie case (the first link above),

Seriously, parents, Mr Christians and the Department of Basic Education – if kids kill themselves as a result of playing Charlie Charlie, it’s not a Mexican demon’s fault. It’s the fault of a worldview detached from reality, and an education system that tolerates and even encourages that worldview.

That “detached from reality” perspective is again on full display today, with one of our major media portals uncritically sharing nonsense, while asserting that they are instead taking “a deeper look” at it.

This is an old story. And I don’t mean months old – it’s the same form of story that keeps coming around, from James Egbert killing himself because of Dungeons&Dragons in 1979 (no, he didn’t), Harmse, Kirsty Theologo, CharlieCharlie, SlenderMan, Gert van Rooyen, etc. etc.

The form involves taking a confusion or a myth seriously enough that we do one or a combination of a) assigning a nonsense explanation to some genuinely troubling thing; b) increasing the chances of kids engaging in copycat behavior by publicising said nonsense and taking it seriously; and c) demonstrating virtually no critical faculties whatsoever.

The Blue Whale story is itself also old, but in the more limited sense of having been circulated – and debunked – in 2016. The immediately apparent issues with it are:

  • The sources are not necessarily credible. First, there is only one source (of the founder of this “game” speaking, I mean), and it’s not in English. English media spreading this story now are simply regurgitating previous scare stories in other English media.

  • The quotes from the alleged founder of the game – who we have no reason to consider trustworthy in any event – speak of creating sensation to draw traffic to his apparent death-cult website. Part of that sensation-seeking might well be simply talking nonsense.

  • The nonsense he talks could well (and does) include claims about luring teens to their deaths. His apparent desire to do so certainly speaks to his state of mind, but it hardly offers any evidence that his mission was, or is, a success, and that people are killing themselves playing #BlueWhale.

  • The numbers don’t add up. The recycled hyperbole around Blue Whale talks about 130 kids killing themselves between November 2015 and April 2016, while the originator only claims “credit” for 17 deaths.

  • Even if more kids are killing themselves, it seems far more likely that this sensationalist treatment is getting the causality entirely backward. Suicidal teens might well flock to games and communities like Blue Whale because they are suicidal, rather than become suicidal because of Blue Whale.

  • To further amplify the previous point, (quoting from the Snopes piece), an “investigation by Radio Free Europe found that no suicides had been definitively linked to these online communities”.

If news organisations that seek to be reputable want to cover things like this, there are ways to do so. You do some basic fact-checking, for a start. And, in this case, once you find out that it’s largely nonsense, you reflect on the value of covering it.

Then, maybe you decide that it’s interesting, simply as a social media “phenomenon” (although something that’s really only getting attention thanks to tabloids might not merit your attention, right?). But in doing so, you are presumably aware that kids are killing themselves, sometimes narrativising doing so via memes like Blue Whale.

So, if you’re going to amplify Blue Whale, your first responsibility is surely to de-mythologise it, and to emphasise agency rather than buying into the narrative that there is an app that might kill you, or cause you to kill yourself?

As the Bloomberg piece concludes:

Meanwhile, Blue Whale, with its exploitation of self-pity and teenage posturing, will keep marching around the world. It doesn’t need the ugly Russian background to thrive: Adolescent misery is borderless.

It also doesn’t need us, and our mindless regurgitation of nonsense to thrive. And what adolescent misery needs is more compassion, and more counseling, and sometimes more medication. It doesn’t need more bullshit.

This column first appeared on synapses.co.za

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