If you were in Kerala during last week, the chances are that you could not have escaped knowing about the Blue Whale Game! Ever buoyed by a sensation-seeking online media, the game’s cross-border global spread finally touched the shores of Kerala exactly one week back. Suffice to say now that, brewed further by a perverse media-interest, fanned by the media-experts and ratified by the police; the urban-legend continued its onward cruise, unchecked in the local media. Now that the interest has waned, this write-up is to document and reflect on the hysteria surrounding the local-spread of the pandemic.
The Wikipedia uses words like “claimed to exist”, “allegedly” etc while providing basic information about this internet “game”. However the pandemic-spread of the name/fame of the game, which originated in Russia, is evident by the country-wise listing of the case summaries of the players of the game -always teen aged boys and girls- who apparently put themselves in danger by engaging with it. Suicide of a fourteen year old boy from Mumbai on 30th, July, 2017 is listed there. The page also documents the reactions and responses from across the globe: ministers and mayors expressing concern, state authorities issuing warnings, schools providing lectures are a few of them. And a casual search of online news-websites with readership in different pockets of the globe, throws up reportage on how parents and authorities in that part of the globe are getting-concerned/ should-be concerned about this danger!
Sections of the media do discuss the rumor elements in the story- this one as early as May 9, 2017 in the Indian national media ( The Indian Express); quotes the Bloomberg View (a US based internet news and views site) columnist Leonid Bershidsky’s comments that: the blue whale is more of an “urban legend“. He laments that an approach of fighting a legend will take attention away from the real causes of high suicide rates – the “broader societal ills” like family distress, poor support in schools, corruption and anomie in society. The Indian express report also says….
The hysteria surrounding the Blue Whale “suicide game” needs to be re-focused on issues of adolescent depression that invite it.
Websites that document, research and fact-check memes, viral phenomenon and urban-legends have also not found direct evidence for it and not been able to link social-media based game groups to increase in suicide rates. Nevertheless, the legend has managed to create some hysteria among media and experts in Kerala. This post is about documenting that phenomenon.
Talking about mass-hysterias, it has become all too common – the most recent ones are the lesser known ‘mangalsutra rumour‘ in rural Karnataka and the one from rural northern India that has caught the attention of the international media also – the ‘choti cutting’ (braid chopping).
Braid chopping phenomenon has been described as hysteria by a psychiatrist. It has been qualified as a ‘rural area’ phenomenon with ‘victims who are uneducated’ and who need ‘counseling and explanation that there is no scientific basis to it’. However in another report a social-commentator says…
It is difficult to say if the hysterical act is ‘deeply significant, just a prank or the domino effect of one event’ and therefore ‘don’t scoff at the women..we are all suggestible to socially transmitted obsessions’.
In this line the hysteria surrounding the blue-whale in Kerala is explored as the spread of an urban legend/ myth among the educated – experts, media and police of Kerala.
(As an aside, a documented hysterical event surrounding a myth in urban-space in Kerala was back in 2015 about a ‘black man‘. The more recent booing-crowds that followed the actor after his arrest has also been described as a mass-hysteria by a psychologist) (illustration from the web)
The Spread of the blue whale in Kerala:
Looks like it all started with this boxed news item in malayala-manorama; on 3rd August⇓ announcing the arrival of game in Kerala:
It says the police is in hot pursuit! It reports that police have found that the “killer game” has been downloaded 2000 times in Kerala. A few teenagers who went sightseeing to the seashore apparently did it under the influence of the game and their parents found, on checking their mobile phones, that they have played the game. The write up ends with a advisory for vigilance by parents.
‘കൊലയാളി ഗെയിം’ എന്നറിയപ്പെടുന്ന വിവാദ മൊബൈൽ ഗയിം കേരളത്തിൽ രണ്ടായി മത്തിലധികം പേർ ഡൗൺലോട് ചെയ്തതായി പോലീസ്സ്.
The Malayalamanorama supported this item with an op-Ed piece on the same day (on 3rd August⇓) by a media-psychiatrist titled
It quotes the Mumbai incident and its relations to the blue-whale game. The article doubts such report’s veracity nevertheless underscores the need to be vigilant -should it be true. It dwells on cyber addictions, mental vulnerabilities, environmental and social vulnerabilities and ends on a call for vigil by parents as quite-often mishaps happen due to lack of vigil by parents. It directly addresses the reader in second person and warns that their children can fall into the trap by casually engaging with the game.
നാളെ നിങ്ങളുടെ കുട്ടിയും വെറും കൗതുകത്തിനു വേണ്ടിയെങ്കിലും ഇന്റർനെറ്റിൽ അതു തിരഞ്ഞുപോകാം. ഏതു വഴിയിലാണ് അപകടം പതിയിരിക്കുന്നതെന്ന് നമുക്ക് ഉറപ്പുപറയാനാകില്ല.
The next day on 4th August⇓ we see more action in Mathrubhoomi newspaper which contains a reportage.
വിദ്യാര്ഥികളുടെ ജീവനെടുക്കുന്ന ബ്ലൂവെയില് ഓണ്ലൈന് കളിക്ക് സമാനമായ പ്രവണതകള് സംസ്ഥാനത്തും റിപ്പോര്ട്ട് ചെയ്യപ്പെടുന്നു. ബ്ലേഡ്കൊണ്ടും കോമ്പസ്കൊണ്ടും കൈയില് ചിത്രങ്ങള് വരയുന്ന വിദ്യാര്ഥികളെ… ചില സ്കൂളുകളില് കണ്ടെത്തി.
Mathrubhoomi also has a supporting op-Ed⇓ on same day by a cyber forensic expert
10 മുതല് 14 വയസ്സുവരെയുള്ള കുട്ടികളെ പതുക്കെപ്പതുക്കെ ആത്മഹത്യയിലേക്ക് നയിക്കുക എന്നതാണ് ഈ ഗെയിമിന്റെ പ്രധാന ലക്ഷ്യം…അമ്പതാം ദിവസമാകുമ്പോഴേക്കും ആ പിഞ്ചുമനസ്സ് മരണത്തെ പുല്കാന് പാകപ്പെട്ടിട്ടുണ്ടാകും.
പോലീസ് ഈ അഡ്മിനിസ്ട്രേറ്റര്മാരെയാണ് തിരഞ്ഞുകൊണ്ടിരിക്കുന്നത്. പക്ഷേ, ഇവരെ വലയില് വീഴ്ത്തുക എന്നത് എളുപ്പമല്ല…
എന്നാല്, മാതാപിതാക്കള്ക്കും അധ്യാപകര്ക്കും കുട്ടികളെ ഇത്തരം ഗെയിമുകളില്നിന്ന് രക്ഷിച്ചെടുക്കാന് മറ്റൊരു വഴിയുണ്ട്. കുട്ടികളുടെ ദിനചര്യകളില് അടുതത്ത കാലത്ത് പെട്ടെന്ന് വന്നുചേര്ന്ന മാറ്റം ശ്രദ്ധിച്ചാല്മാത്രം മതിയാകും കുട്ടികള് ഇത്തരം ചതിക്കുഴിയില് പെട്ടിട്ടുണ്ടോ എന്നറിയാന്
The alarmist pattern gets more set here in the detailed scare elements and parental advisory. Next day, on 5th August⇓ in a Times of India report comes the refutation, and it quotes the police IG on the issue of downloads.
“The report claiming 2,000 downloads is a hoax as the police have not confirmed any such cases till date”, he says
However The Hindu report on same day⇓ quotes extensively from a police advisory to the public.
Terming the online game ‘extremely dangerous’, the police have said that several children and youths have been deeply influenced by the game. Under the circumstances, the parents have been advised to monitor the activities of their children and remove such games from their computers and smart phones, the advisory added.
The actual advisory from the police as circulated in whatsapp⇓in fact copies verbatim factoids about the 50 step process of the game in full fidelity to the legend! It however affirms the spread of the game in India based on media reports only as support!
ചില മാധ്യമങ്ങളിൽ വന്ന വിവരപ്രകാരം നിരവധി ആളുകൾ ഇന്ത്യയിൽ ഈ ഗേയിം ഉപയോഗിക്കുന്നതായാണ് കാണുന്നത്.
This is a circular reversal of where we began this post – the article which first announced the arrival of the game had based itself on police reports! (കൊലയാളി ഗെയിം എന്നറിയപ്പെടുന്ന വിവാദ മൊബൈൽ ഗയിം കേരളത്തിൽ രണ്ടായി മത്തിലധികം പേർ ഡൗൺലോട് ചെയ്തതായി പോലീസ്സ്.) However the Hindu report on the police advisory and a vernacular news snippet on the same conveniently skips this aspect.
By the time this post is written the blue-whale gets its coverage in at least three TV channels and an FM station.
We are living in an age of accelerations (Thomas L Friedman lists three accelerations: technology, globalization, climatic change). Societal structures/ adaptations/ technologies lag behind and do the catch-up to keep phase with the accelerating physical technology and globalization changes. This creates a gap spurring anxieties, cultural angst and also a fertile ground for genesis of contemporary-legends (urban myths). Scare and phobia and panic that accompany rapid changes manifests as elements in these myths. The feedback loops in the global connectivity provides the flow channels for their rapid spread too.
In the immediate current scenario, we are experiencing the acceleration from 3G to 4G, our data consumption is moving from GB/year to GB/day. Our/ our children’s constant online presence has come next to unavoidable. We feel we need the reasons to keep us/them away from it. We have witnessed some untoward outcomes around us too – in last one year Kerala witnessed the recruitment of its youth (attracted/ self radicalized) to ISIS networks though online channels (Kerala youth who joined ISIS killed in Afghanistan: Reports). Thus the real and the perceived dangers get blurred right before our eyes.It is this that makes the blue-whale look plausible for us.
The media fell for it, rightly gauging the mood of the readership, but the experts and police authorities could have show some restraint. But then experts have their media careers to flourish too. And it is easy for the police to issue a key-jerk advisory than do the difficult job of doing the fact-check. After all, all that the experts and the police felt like doing was to ask the parents to be more vigilant and cautious! Maybe some of them believed it is OK to even ride the wave of hysteria to push some useful information alongside. Everyone loves a good myth! The hysteria this time has gripped the urban and the educated!
But in these changing times, we need better problem solving, problem solving that is “entrepreneurial and hybrid” (Friedman) and not scare tactics and simplistic solutions. We need strategies that build societal resilience and address vulnerabilities.
In this line I liked this advice, though simple, given by (India today) on August 4⇓ itself in this piece
There is an adage for the real world: “Don’t talk to strangers”. It applies on the virtual world too. You should tell your kids not to talk to strangers on the web, or on social media sites.
Just as I was about to post the blog, came across this⇓ mention about the blue-whale in the legislative assembly by the Chief minister himself in response to a submission in the assembly! It is not over yet!
“The government has issued a warning. Police is also closely monitoring those who have downloaded the game here. Police have asked them to uninstall the games from their gadgets.Since Indian Computer Emergency Response Team is the agency that could do something to halt the availability of the game, the state government would appeal the Centre to take steps and block it in India,” Vijayan said.
Tail piece : Watch this Asianetnews video on the blue-whale to see the hysterical aspects of the media hyperbola peppered with some conspiratorial elements too. (Already crossed 1 lakh youtube views)