FACT CHECK

Are Indian teenagers really committing suicide because of the Blue Whale challenge?

Dark days.
Dark days.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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About a week before 15-year-old Ankan Dey’s body was found in the bathroom of his home on Aug. 12, a towel wrapped around his neck and a plastic sheet around his face, he had scribbled an English poem in his notebook. Dey had shown the poem to a close circle of friends, who recommended he show it to one of the teachers at their school in West Midnapore district. He did not.

“He later told his friends it was not an original composition and he had picked it up randomly from the internet,” said a police officer privy to the investigation into Dey’s death. “I do not remember whose poetry it actually was but it expressed immense grief. The victim left no suicide note. So far, the poem is the only clue that leads us to the logical assumption that he could be a victim of severe depression.”

Almost immediately after Dey’s suicide, it began to be reported as the first death in West Bengal linked to the global Blue Whale phenomenon.

The Blue Whale challenge is said to be an online game in which a designated curator assigns players various tasks over a 50-day period, culminating in the player committing suicide. It is believed to have originated in Russia and spread to other countries. In the past several months, several suicides across India have been linked with the challenge in some form or the other, prompting demands that the game be banned. The central government has even ordered Facebook and Google to take down all material connected to the challenge.

Yet, an examination of the actual cases reportedly connected to the Blue Whale challenge in India suggests tenuous links, many of which have emerged only after the game hit headlines.

“Ankan Dey did not take the Blue Whale challenge,” said Bharati Ghosh, superintendent of police in West Midnapore. “The boy did not have a smartphone. He surfed the internet quite often from a computer in his father’s shop. We have examined all his online interactions and reached the conclusion that he did not take any such challenge.”

Why was his suicide linked to the Blue Whale challenge then?

The day after Dey’s death, reporters thronged the locality and they went around posing questions to residents, even children who claimed to be friends with the victim, said one of the journalists who was there that day. “Some of the boys who were interviewed mentioned about Ankan playing video games, and that led to the quick assumption that the death could have links with the Blue Whale challenge,” said the journalist, asking to remain unidentified. “By then, news about the challenge and mysterious suicides worldwide was already doing the rounds.”

The journalist’s story was corroborated by Ghosh, who said that the reporters did come to the police raising suspicions about links with the Blue Whale challenge. “So we went on to speak with all the friends of the victim,” Ghosh said. “Many of them told the police that the boy was fond of video games but they had not even heard of the Blue Whale challenge.”

Hasty conclusion

It is about the same story with the “Blue Whale-linked suicides” reported from Mumbai and Delhi.

In Mumbai, a 14-year-old boy jumped to his death from the terrace of a seven-floor building in the Andheri East area on July 29. He had photographed himself sitting on the parapet just before jumping off and captioned it: “Soon the only thing you would be left with is a picture of me.” The death was reported in the media on July 31, as the first suspected case of Blue Whale-linked suicide in India.

One news report quoted unidentified police sources to claim that the boy had been playing the Blue Whale challenge. According to another report, almost all the friends of the deceased knew that he had taken up the challenge. An unidentified teacher was quoted as saying that though he was addicted to video games it was unclear if the Blue Whale challenge was one of them. He’d also often spoken about Russia over the past two years, according to other school officials.

The police, however, contradicted these claims. “The cause of suicide is not known yet and no Blue Whale angle has emerged in our investigation,” said Pandurang Patil, senior inspector at Meghwadi Police Station, who is monitoring the case. Patil, however, refused to explain how the Blue Whale angle had emerged in the first place.

In Delhi, the 19-year-old son of a former Manipur minister died after falling from the terrace of a restaurant in South Delhi’s Hauz Khas area on Aug. 12. This death too was linked to the Blue Whale challenge in a report published in The Times of India.

“From preliminary investigation, it seems like a case of accident and not suicide,” said Chinmoy Biswal, additional deputy commissioner of police. “We have registered a case under the charge of negligence causing death. We have questioned friends and acquaintances of the victim and no Blue Whale angle has emerged in our investigation so far.”

A few other cases of attempted suicide in India have also been linked to the Blue Whale challenge. One such case was reported from Indore in Madhya Pradesh. On Aug. 10, a class seven student tried to jump from the third floor of his school building. The 14-year-old was reportedly rescued by the physical education teacher, who was quoted in a news report as saying the boy had confessed to the principal that his suicide attempt was part of the challenge.

When Scroll.in contacted the teacher, Farooq Sheikh, he said he was not authorised to comment on the matter.

Sangeeta Poddar, the principal, said: “Our first responsibility was to save the boy. Later, we arranged for a counselling session, which was attended by the boy and his parents. It came to light that he often played games on his father’s phone. We cannot say anything beyond this as the matter is being probed by the police.”

The police said the boy “never took up the Blue Whale challenge. “However, the boy is tech-savvy and he had knowledge about the Blue Whale challenge,” said Rupesh Dwivedi, additional superintendent of police in Indore. “During investigation, it also emerged that he had come across the link to the challenge once on his father’s phone. But he never signed up for it.”

The police said that the boy was extremely stressed because of some academic difficulties. The Blue Whale angle appeared because many of his friends were aware of the challenge and they raised suspicion. But it did not turn out to be so, said a senior police official who did not want to be identified.

A similar case was reported in Dehradun. In Maharashtra, a teenager who had left his home in Solapur early this month was picked up from along a highway by the police. A report in the Mid Day newspaper claimed he had left for Pune to execute a Blue Whale task.

Scroll.in could not independently verify the Blue Whale links in these two cases.

The Russia connection

India is not alone in reporting suicides linked to the Blue Whale challenge. Russia is the epicentre of the phenomenon. A report on Snopes.com, which specialises in researching and fact-checking urban legends, explains how the trend was first reported by a Russian website Novaya Gazeta in May 2016. The Russian site had analysed 130 suicides of children in the country from November 2015 to April 2016, and concluded that at least 80 of them were related to the Blue Whale challenge. But Radio Free Europe, a broadcaster funded by the United States, investigated these claims, and found that deaths across Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other former Soviet republics had been linked to the Blue Whale challenge without any conclusive evidence.

In July this year, Russian authorities arrested a 22-year-old man they suspected of being the ringleader of the Blue Whale challenge after he bragged about convincing teenagers to commit suicide. He has since been jailed for three years for inciting people to kill themselves, the Daily Mail reported.

India’s response

In India, minister for women and child development Maneka Gandhi took up the matter with home minister Rajnath Singh and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad last week, asking for the removal of all links to the Blue Whale challenge from the social media. In her letter to the two ministers, Gandhi said the game was believed to have persuaded some 100 children and young adults to kill themselves in the United States, China, and elsewhere, the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported.

On Aug. 15, according to PTI, the Centre ordered Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Microsoft, and Yahoo to remove the Blue Whale challenge from their platforms.

Twin suicides in Kerala

Two suicides most closely linked to the Blue Whale challenge occurred in Kerala, one in Kannur district on May 19 and the other in the capital Thiruvananthapuram on July 27.

The young man who killed himself on May 19 was MK Sawant, 22, who had freshly graduated from an Industrial Training Institute. The other was a Class 11 student named Manoj Chandran. Both hanged themselves at home. Their parents have told the police they fell victim to the Blue Whale challenge.

Chandran’s mother, Anu, first raised the Blue Whale angle with the police on Aug. 16, twenty days after her son’s death. She claimed she did so after being prodded by a friend who explained the threat posed by the challenge. Sawant’s mother, Sakhee, raised this concern almost three months after her son’s death, after hearing about Chandran’s case.

The police, however, have not been able to establish any connection between the suicides and the Blue Whale challenge so far, nor have the parents been able to help the police with any evidence.

Anu said her son had once told her about a popular adventure game called Blue Whale, which would either drive people insane or lead them to suicide. That was in November 2016 . “I asked him not to play that game,” she said. “I noticed many behavioural changes in him after December. But I did not take them seriously.”

As listed by his mother, the behavioural changes included Chandran refusing to study any further, wanting to tour India on a motorbike, and making late night visits to the beach and a cemetery.

Asked why she did not complain about Blue Whale challenge immediately after her son’s death, she said, “I opened his mobile many days after his death. I did not believe when he told me that he visited cemetery and beaches at night. But I was shocked to see the videos on his mobile. Then I could easily establish the fact that he took the Blue Whale challenge.”

She added: “I approached the police after being prodded by a friend, who told me that Blue Whale challenge would claim more lives in Kerala if I didn’t open up.”

Anu said she had tried to persuade Chandran to see a psychiatrist but he refused. She claimed she once saw the letters “ABI” cut into her son’s forearm with a sharp object and blood oozing from the injury. A report in The Times of India, however, quoted the station house officer of Vilappilsala police station as saying that the boy’s postmortem did not reveal any signs of injury.

According to Sakhee, her son was addicted to video games and stayed up till late at night. She was convinced about the Blue Whale link after hearing of Chandran’s case, she said.

Sawant too had shown behavioural problems after passing class 10, she said. He once went missing for 10 days when he was studying in Thalassery and had attempted suicide twice, in 2016 and 2017. “Sawant was being treated for depression for the past four years,” said Vineetha Tom, psychiatrist at Christu Raj Hospital.

The police, however, have attributed Sawant’s suicide to a failed love affair.

Kannur district police chief Siva Vikram, who is probing Sawant’s death, said they have not found substantial proof to link the suicide to the Blue Whale challenge.

K Anil Kumar, who recently retired as assistant commandant of Cyberdom, a technological research and development centre of the Kerala police, recommended a cautious approach before making any conclusions about the Blue Whale challenge. “I think these are just rumours,” he added. “There were many inconsistencies in the complaints by the parents of the dead youngsters. Let the police complete the inquiry.”

With inputs from TA Ameerudheen in Kerala. This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.