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This is the second day in a row I've discovered something suicidally whacky on Twitter. The first was when I found a profile with a UID number on it. Today was crazier. Vivek Namibar, a journalist with India Today with a verified handle on Twitter, posted a series of tweets that can only be described as extremely disturbing. You can check them out here:

The thread describes a "suicide challenge game" that involves the participants taking on various tasks assigned to them by a "curator" on the internet. Seemed complete nonsense, but the handle was a journalist and myth or fact, the tweet had already been shared almost a hundred times (and counting). So I decided to find out more.

Based on the myth that blue whales come to the shore when they want to die, the alleged game encourages participants to do various tasks that are depressing or scary or involve self-harm over a period of 49 days and they are asked to kill themselves on the 50th day. One person was arrested in Russia on charges of encouraging 16 people to commit suicide. Various reports and unsubstantiated numbers of teenagers who have killed themselves because of the game. Reports that it had spread to the UK, reports that French police were warning people. Vivek was warning that the game may have reached India with one death in Mumbai and another in Bangalore that he could not trace.

Given the gravity of the warning, I thought it was important to investigate and at least do some initial straight talking based on what I found.

There is no evidence whatsoever that the Blue Whale Challenge exists

While it is hardly unheard of that depressed teenagers (and even perfectly healthy ones as well as adults) succumb to undesirable influences on the internet, given today's modern world of technology, it is impossible that if an organized game involving interaction over the internet over 50 days existed as a link in a large number of deaths in multiple countries, goes undetected. In the event of a suicide, a person's communications will be examined. If the suicide is suspected to have happened because of influences on the internet, there will be an investigation and at least some kind of concrete information would have come up. Given that several of the tasks reported involve self-harm, including making cuts on the body, carving a whale on various parts of the body and so on, it would have been hard evidence linking various suicides - there is no such evidence. There would be statements from the family about this kind of self-mutilation happening before the suicide. There are no such reports.

The game seems to be some sort of an urban myth that originated in Russia. It is possible that there may have been communications or some interactions involving depressed teenagers who committed suicide and tasks and so on, but there is absolutely no proof that such a game exists. It is just that we tend to notice more what has been brought to our attention, so if such a link is heard about, anything that could remotely fit starts looking like it is true. If I told you a pimple was forming on your nose when we met in person, you'd touch your nose a lot more, exploring its contour to catch that pimple!

The only place where the game seems to have spread is in Brazil with several suicides and suicide attempts allegedly related with the game reported. yet there is are no reports of investigations or arrests.

What is the real danger of the Blue Whale Game?

Well, it is obvious. An urban myth that runs wild and gives people ideas. Ideas that exploit others, or seductive ideas for suicidal people to make one last statement and dramatic exit. Another reporter who tried to find out about the game and wrote about it found that a lot of the comments he received were from teenagers seeking the blue whale game! Needless to say, regardless of whether the game exists, it is providing a source of curiosity and potentially interesting teenagers with suicidal tendencies. He provided a button with his story that said "Start game" and over 9% of people who read his article and its warnings clicked the button anyway. The button led to a page where people were asked why they wanted to play the game and answers ranged from the curious to those really wanting to end their lives.

Sociopaths may see opportunity in the teenagers being interested and seek to harm them by engaging them in what they are seeking and expect. An urban myth that makes suicide sound like some kind of rite of passage may encourage vulnerable minds to lose objectivity and choose self-harm.

Malicious online entities could engage people in the game and provide people with links that infected their computers with malware. After all, a person looking to find a person encouraging them to commit suicide is hardly going to expect a hacker.

All the usual cautions about strangers on the internet apply.

What is the good news?

Is there a good news about the blue whale game? Well, yes. Given that the blue whale game involves tasks to be completed over 50 days, tasks that involve fairly conspicuous behavior, like going to the tops of building and standing on the edge, standing on bridges, cutting their arms, cutting designs onto their limbs - this behavior is very easy to notice and trigger concern. And the good news is that it must go on for almost two months before the suicide. I think it beats a teenager committing suicide on a whim and gives people a chance to notice the problem and gives them a chance to change their minds. 49 days of bizarre behavior has a much better chance of someone intervening than a teenager leaving for college and stepping in front of a train. There is no need for paranoia. It isn't true, and even if it were, it has a better chance of someone noticing it and putting a stop to it than an "unorganized" suicide, so to say.

How dangerous is the blue whale game?

This is tough to say. Given that there is no evidence the game exists, there is no "threat score" one can attach to it. I saw several videos said to be music shared as a part of the challenge and I don't feel suicidal at all. And I am someone who has no problems with suicide and have even been suicidal myself in the past. So if there were some mystical power that would make a viewer want to kill themselves, or at least depressed, I should feel something. Nope. Zero wish to kill me. Anyone who watched and did feel depressed probably was reacting to the title saying that it would make them feel depressed or something. There are no supernatural powers in the video.

That said, obviously, self harm is dangerous and suicide is fatal. So I guess, even if the game doesn't exist if people find the idea appealing and try to copy it, it is obviously dangerous. I imagine too many horror movies in the middle of the night on a sleep deprived brain would fry anyone's sense of well being. Nothing catching up on sleep won't fix, I imagine.

The real danger of such secret, coercive interactions would likely to be predatory behavior with teenagers. Online sexual predators, risk of malicious code being downloaded to computers, personal information breached or willingly given that can make someone vulnerable to blackmail... the sane thing to do here is to keep your computer's security updated and not engage in intimate conversations with strangers.

Some last words about this blue whale suicide game thing - try the pink whale challenge instead

The reporter who did that story on the blue whale game and found the teenagers interested created an alternative pink whale challenge. Not going to link to it. If you really landed here looking for something, it will satisfy your need to search for it and find it and you can play it.

With or without the blue whale game, teenage depression and suicides are growing. There is a need to be supportive of vulnerable people and to provide a compassionate listening ear. If you find anyone around you being unusually depressed, engaging in self-harm, withdrawing from the world, do take a moment to check on them, and if necessary, speak with their friends and/or families and see that they receive any attention needed.

If you find yourself interested in suicide, seek help. More importantly, seek information. When emotions are low, it is harder to be convinced that things aren't as bad as we perceive them. Hard facts devoid of positive or negative emotion can serve as an anchor for sanity and allow you to gain a sense of perspective. Contact suicide helplines (search for them). Talk about it with friends you trust to listen to you. Make an abrupt change in life. Quit an environment making you unhappy, try something altogether different. It is a sort of metaphorical rebirth, you know? The giving up of an old unsatisfying life and the trying out of something that appeals more. I have done that often in life. Change careers, live in a different place, break up or fall in love, whatever.

Remember, thoughts of death may be common, acting on it is not. There is no need to fear. It is better to empower yourself with information and pragmatic action. If you are happy, if you care for yourself and seek help when you feel low, you aren't going to want to die, and no game can make you want to do it. That is just the internet being what it is.

Update: After publishing this post, it has come to my attention that the one Mumbai boy's suicide is behind this speculation of the Blue Whale challenge. This is in spite of the police not finding any history of altered behavior in the boy or signs of self mutilation - both of which would have been present if this were a case of the alleged "Blue whale challenge". Regardless, an incredibly uncritical media has widely reported the death as a potential Blue Whale game suicide, Devendra Fadnavis has apparently promised an inquiry saying that if it is an online game, it can easily be blocked (compounding gullibility with rank ignorance of the internet). And to top everything, this was brought up in the Parliament and the government may probably be preparing to issue some kind of a warning on the issue. While they are at it, they should also warn people against trusting Lord Voldemort. The complete gullibility of the media and the state and center governments is staggering. This is what you get by promoting stupidification and superstition. Critical thinking goes for a toss.

 

blue whale game news
How a suicide got attributed to the fictional blue whale game and swept through media, got concerned Chief Minister to promise action and got taken seriously in Rajya Sabha

Viral trends of this sort spread with panic and reach the fertile ground of the minds of those discontented with life who find them appealing. Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the media and the Parliament ought to show restraint instead of introducing Indian youth to such ideas made all the more melodramatic for the attention they get. There are countless suicides in India on a daily basis. While this one is very sad as well, there is no need to go overboard about it and jump to conclusions that have no evidence in the reported facts of the case.

Update 2: More info on Snopes

Here is what is going on with the fake article about emotional distress helplines that Free Press Journal. There are mixed messages galore.

After some attempt to fob off the fake reporting as the helplines giving quotes and then denying later, the reporter admitted that she had no proof of the interviews whatsoever. And it isn't just about the content of the interviews, she doesn't even have proof of contacting the helplines for quotes at all. Instead, they are asking for confidential call records of the helpline that would jeopardize the confidentiality of thousands of callers. One really has to wonder at the need for this needle and haystack process. If the reporter knows the time of call and number she called from, the records for that number will have the call. What is the point in demanding a vast swathe of helpline numbers as though the reporter doesn't know her own number?

fake journalism by Free Press journal
Fake article at Free Press Journal invents a trend, data to prove it and quotes by experts too!

The journalist did admit that she did not have any evidence of having asked for a quote from anyone in that article as per Paras Sharma. Yet the editors continue to call it a case where either party could be lying.

This is fairly serious, but astonishingly, the organization has gone into a cover up mode with bizarre replies from editors ranging from "she is young and just beginning her career" to "neither of you can prove". The article itself has been taken down from the website. However the iCall wants a formal retraction in print as well as at the url of the missing article, as the allegations of the article raise a doubt on their professionalism, not to mention creating a perception among readers that their anonymity may not be safe with helplines and thus prevent people from seeking help. This, the Free Press Journal refuses to retract its story.

Paras Sharma of iCall helpline is understandably livid. He insists that if the article was published in the print edition, a retraction in the print edition is required. After the evasions and denials and cover ups, even an admission of not having any evidence at all of having interviewed is being termed as having no proof that the article was fake. He intends to approach the Press Council in this matter as well as The Hoot, and will continue to press for a retraction.

I am perplexed by this seemingly adamant refusal to uphold journalistic standards by retracting reports that get proved unreliable. Is the Free Press Journal seriously saying that it does not retract articles known to be false for the sake of sympathy for the person who faked it? What is the integrity of the publication and why should anyone buy it? One wonders if it is indeed a junior reporter who made up the false story, or is she being shoved under the bus to protect some liar with power in the organization? I truly cannot imagine a news publishing organization trading its reputation for a new recruit. Should I downgrade my already low opinion of news "outlets" further?

Here is the latest email I received from Paras. I have not been in touch with anyone from the Free Press Journal.

Dear Vidyut,

I am writing to you to seek your help in bringing the Free Press Journal to justice. On Valentine's Day this year, the Free Press Journal published a story written by Swati Jha, which I have attached with this email.

As you can see, I have been quoted in this story in my professional capacity. Now what is the problem with this story, you ask? Well, the reporter never contacted me for any such story.

The whole quote, along with all the stats are completely made up. What's more, the other helpline which has been quoted in the story - Aasra, has also said that the reporter never called him up for the story. The three case studies as it stands, are absolutely fake.

I have written to the Editorial board and went through the entire hierarchy going from the DGM - Mr. TGP Krishnan, the city editor Mr. Anil Singh, right to the Editor-in-Chief Mr. Shailender Dhawan.

The paper was initially apologetic and cooperative. They took down the story from the website and as you can see now the page throws a 404 http://freepressjournal.in/helplines-flooded-with-desperate-calls-before-v-day/

After relentless pressure from my end, and after you wrote about this, the journalist personally wrote to me apologizing for her story and even admitting that she has no proof for her story!

We said that since our organization had been quoted publicly, a private takedown of the story and an email apology shall not suffice. Despite repeated assurances, the editor-in-chief today has refused to print a retraction saying that we have not provided clinching proof that the story was fake.

He essentially says that its our word against his reporter and if we question their journalistic ethics, they will question our ethics saying that we dont respect client confidentiality and freely share the information with the media.

He has told me 'Don't waste my time' and that 'I should pursue the matter in any way I deem fit'.

Some more facts in conjunction to this case:

1) The reporter did not have my personal number
2) She thought my name was Prashant as opposed to Paras
3) She has no call-log or audio transcript of the conversation
4) She has no proof to establish she spoke to ANY of the people mentioned in the story

While we are contemplating our future course of action, I would appreciate any support/guidance you can offer in fighting this unethical newspaper.

Thanks

Update: The Free Press Journal did publish an apology and retraction on their front page.

fpj-apology

6

This is the most difficult post I have written in ages, but I think it is wrong to compensate farmer suicides and I am speaking up. I know that will make me look evil - refusing money to the desperately poor, but this blog was never a popularity contest.

A soldier who goes on a suicide mission does it for a greater cause. Death is a price he pays so that others may gain. Others he cares about.

Seen an old Anil Kapoor film Saheb? When he is impotent to provide for his family, he sacrifices his kidney to raise money.

When a poor person is at the end of his rope, and sees no end in sight, and knows that his death will bring his family money.... do the math.

The other problem is that offering payments for farmer suicides as a rule is in essence saying that there is not going to be any change in conditions, and a norm needs to be created rather than dealing with each case individually. In other words, it is a standard created for responding to deaths that we are responsible for. You don't create a norm for something you intend to stop. You stop it. You prosecute violators, not reward victims.

If each farmer can die individually, each case should be compensated individually - if that takes too much time, think of what that inconvenient number means in terms of the cost of policies. Work to prevent suicides, not prevent them attention. What does it say of us as humans, that there is a "category of people" we refuse to pay special attention to even in death?

By taking up each case individually, the family's suffering gets acknowledged, their compensations suit their needs, and there is no "standard price" put on life to encourage suicides among desperate farmers.

Like how things are, suicide has joined the ranks of "source of money"!!!! From the state!!! Am I the only one to find this macabre?

Money for a life lost because there was no hope of getting money, and yet if the farmer had lived, they wouldn't get it.

An ugly taunt.

If these sops must be given, pay people to live, not die! But that would be too expensive. More people alive than dead, no? Better save money and pick the smaller sample that has "truly suffered". Never mind that they suffered life, not death.

Instead, the appropriate response to these deaths would be abject apology for failing them, and immediate setting aside of all egos and desired images to maintain and humbly trying out suggestions made by people who have put in considerable thought on the matter.

In fact, I would go ahead and say to create a panel to recommend changes in policy, laws, infrastructure and so on, that is composed almost entirely of agriculture related activists and pro-farmer journalists like P. Sainath - and execute their suggestions - at least the top three crucial ones, at least more than half of them without question. Notice I say execute, not consider. That is humility. It is arrogance to debate stuff we have no real concept of, and exert discretion to accept or reject suggestions of experienced people on matters we don't understand at ground level. Matters with life and death on stake.

Politicians don't understand the ground realities enough to make informed decisions. They should appoint people of trust and then trust them.

At the moment, commissions and panels talk a lot, write a lot. End result is suicides continue. That is not working. Why are their suggestions not taken? Why is it that a farmer works hard all his life and still cannot maintain basic survival needs? Why is no action taken against those who should be taking care of this, but have consistently failed even basic stuff? Restore govt spending on these areas to pre-greedism levels - why is this rocket science? Why is it that Kingfisher can consider bailout from the government as can other industries - even banks, but not farmers? Is food not necessary for our country?

The government should stop applying their ideas on this and stubbornly sticking to their paralysis and recognize that those ideas are failing for a long time and lives are being lost. This is not a no-stakes trial to go on for so long without showing results. It is time to try out new ideas with humility and continue or discontinue them based on results.

16

Been reading a lot of news about people committing suicide. Suicides in general seem to be increasing. A few weeks ago, a friend spoke of a patient of his who had been suicidal, and I realized that this blog has very little on the subject in spite of me having thought about it a lot.

I have wanted to commit suicide a few times, though it was rather idle and it never got to even a planning stage, let alone attempting. But I know what that feels like. To be so fed up of everything and so dejected about any hope for a change that you want an exit. Instead of dying, I walked out. In a way, that was the death of the relationship and allowed me a new start, which is pretty much what the need of a suicidal person is.

Over the years, news of suicide has always got me wondering about what the conditions that person living in were. I have talked with several people on the subject and discovered a few things:

  1. Suicide is not an "ok" subject for conversation. If you talk about suicide, unless you clearly mention a specific person, the assumption is that "you may be thinking of something stupid". It is not even considered that you may be talking about suicide as a phenomenon that happens among people in general. There are immediate attempts to shut down the conversation or move to other subjects.
  2. Every person I spoke with. EVERY PERSON. Has thought about suicide. As in, their own death, at their own hands. It has usually been at a time of great frustration, but more than that, it has been curiosity about suicide itself. Every person I discussed this with has given some thoughts as to what a "viable" suicide would be - usually in terms of painless.
  3. Almost no person I spoke with had actually tried to commit suicide, or even planned to do it. Those who had almost always backed off the idea and called it their cowardice, or changed their minds and decided to fight back, or endure or otherwise hang on to hope. One person I know had made an attempt and got rescued. One person - who had actually talked about it with me as a kid - when I hadn't even thought about it yet - did commit suicide a few years ago - successfully. I am not aware of the details - I came to know much later through a mutual friend. One person I know committed suicide when all seemed to be going well. Had not talked with him. He wasn't that close a friend.
  4. Suicide is seen as a sign of weakness and shame in common conversation. Suicide is talked of as an angry rejection or frustrated giving up when speaking of own contemplations.
  5. Suicide is very personal. Be it thinking of your own, or someone you love, or someone you know, or someone you read of in the news. It is still very personal. Generates a lot of emotion - usually in favor of the victim, but I have known some who have hated the person committing suicide for "doing this to us".

I thought more about this when I first heard that we have a law making suicide illegal. It seemed rather strange. What does the court do? Judge a dead body? At that point, the only suicides I had known of were in films or media, etc.

As I grew up, I realized that suicides also fail. By then, I had suffered enough life to have wondered about death, and I felt an empathy for the poor person who was sad enough to want to die, and the court would then punish him for living. Seemed counter-intuitive. Still does.

Then I started thinking of other kinds of suicides that don't get this suicide treatment. The saints in the Indian history - samadhi was a kind of suicide. Only it was seen as a sign of a life completed rather than "atma hatya" - the word more common that implies the shame and other stuff. And then there were the other "shames" like Sati, or Jauhar and Saka among the Rajputs when faced with defeat at the hands of Islamic invaders. Sallekhana among the Jains.

Iccha mrityu (death as wished) is a revered concept in Indian mythology - the mark of a very superior being.

I read about the suicide warriors - soldiers who died in war in very risky attempts knowing full well that they wouldn't survive them. Suicide missions. The Kamikaze pilots of WWII, suicide bombers of the Taliban.

In the process, I realized that there were two kinds of suicide itself. One objectified the subject and planned its termination as a part of a larger understanding. The other was an escape when all other options looked bad.

I think, among the suicides we see today, as suicides (not attacks) the overwhelming story is one of inescapable odds being perceived by the victim (victim of self - now that's a thought we have adopted without realizing!).

I think, the stigma around suicide is claimed to be shame on behalf of the person who died, but in reality is shame for creating conditions where a person preferred death to the company s/he was in. Or, among less related people, it is a hesitation to antagonize the living over someone who has died.

In general, we have a morbid fear of death (which I think is very Christian) enshrined into our laws. I find far less hesitation to talk about suicide or death itself among the religious people, whose identity is not so westernized and they are fine with talking about things in their scriptures. Possibly the only subject where I think religious inclination is healthier than non-religious.

I think it is important that we stop this massive paranoia over death and suicide in particular, and be more open to really talking and sharing insights so that we may address these choices desperate people make better than calling them illegal and ignoring them.

I for one think it should be mandatory for all the people in the environment of the suicidal person to get counselling - whether home or work or school. Whatever. I also think that the best therapy for a suicidal person would be to give him or her a long paid holiday in a totally different place with totally different people and help them see if at the end of it they want to create a new life there or in another place, or return to their environment if they feel more able to tackle it.

More importantly, I see suicides as an indicator of failing systems, particularly when there is an alarming increase. Those systems can be educational, financial, social, professional or other, but they are situations that are so rigid that survival seems impossible. For example, this tweeted news that this week in Delhi, there has been one suicide every 17 hours so far. We need to wake up and see the cost of rigidity and intolerance on the weaker among us, because that is the first sign only. If we continue to create a world that is more and more difficult to live in, it won't be long till we consume ourselves.