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Blue Whale: how a social media phenomenon revealed the depth of Russia’s generation gap

Blue Whale: how a social media phenomenon revealed the depth of Russia’s generation gap

The Blue Whale “suicide challenge” caused media uproar recently, with Russian social networks accused of putting children’s lives at risk. The real issue, argues Sasha Raspopina, is a deepening generational divide between post-Soviet digital natives and a distrustful adult world

14 June 2017

The so-called “Blue Whale suicide challenge”, the subject of many viral news stories in recent months, is said to have originated in Russia. Website after website describe the chilling conspiracy in which teenagers join social media groups and pages (mostly on VKontakte, or VK, the Russian version of Facebook), where anonymous admins convince them to self-harm and commit suicide as a part of the game that extends from the online world into offline reality. The “game” consists of a string of puzzles, tasks and dares, which supposedly lead to the ultimate prompt: committing suicide on a given date. Tabloids and popular websites warn against the challenge spreading to other countries, including the UK. But the whole thing is a generation gap misinterpretation gone rogue.

This is not to say that teenagers don’t commit suicide at a disproportionate rate compared to adults, nor do I want to trivialise the tragedy involved. As debates around Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why indicate, this is an incredibly difficult topic for the media to take on responsibly. But the viral story of Blue Whale is only superficially about suicide – in fact, it is about misunderstanding between generations, a passive conflict between digital natives and their parents and the misinterpretation of urban legends.

A research paper recently produced by the School of Public Policy at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration concludes that the “challenge” was largely constructed by the media’s reporting on it. The researchers observed and participated in VK “suicide groups” between May 2016 and February 2017, posing as players and talking to the admins and other group members, and confirmed that the idea of the “suicide challenge” was closer to a kind of “haunted house” experience in the beginning, before the media row grew. For teenagers, joining these groups was a thrill, a “fear experience” akin to knocking on a “scary” neighbour’s door or using a Ouija board. However, after the first publication on the topic – in Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta – caused shockwaves on the Russian internet last year, the way that group members discussed the challenge began to reflect the “procedures” described by journalists. But still, even after the game started to resemble the “suicide challenge” of media reports, it presented no real danger, as the authors of the paper insist. The subsequent spread of moral panic to the western press, as several internet safety specialists have argued, bears comparison with the dissemination of “fake news”.

While the generation gap exists in all societies, in Russia it has been exacerbated by historical circumstances

While the generation gap exists in all societies, in Russia it has been exacerbated by historical circumstances: there is a void between adults who grew up in the Soviet Union, and digital native teenagers who have grown up with broadband, smartphones and social media, in a young country. The parents who spent their formative years growing up in the tightly controlled information environment of the USSR see their children grow up on the chaotic “information superhighway” that is as open to everyone with the requisite desire and knowledge. In this situation the otherwise tame phenomena of the generation gap and adult misinterpretation of urban legends are boosted by digital paranoia and distrust of technology, seen as something schemed up by the West to harm “our” children; the sentiment here is similar to that which fuelled Russia’s suspicions of Pokémon Go last year. Only this time, with the Blue Whale challenge, this is presented as an actual and immediate physical danger, a perfect recipe for moral and media panic.

Plus, since mental health remains even more of a taboo in Russia than it is in western Europe, these misunderstanding are also built on a lack of information around depression and other mental health issues. Various people invited onto Russian talk shows to discuss the Blue Whale challenge as “experts” speak in unscientific terms about “artificially induced depression”, claiming that videos and hypnosis shared within the VK groups were what caused teens to become depressed or commit suicide. Some journalists even went as far as interviewing recently bereaved parents, some of whom desperately wish to find an external culprit for their tragedy, and using their statements to argue for tighter control over the internet.

Finally, the wave of misinterpretations and the ever-growing media row derive from a longstanding refusal to afford agency to teenagers. This is especially obvious – and problematic – at a time when young people who go to anti-government protests are then lectured by their teachers for “not understanding” the world, politics or their own feelings about them. Russian TV personality Alexander Nevzorov recently commented on the issue of alienation and its connection to teen depression during his show on the Ekho Moskvi (Echo of Moscow) radio station, arguing that the court case over the Russian Pokémon Go blogger Ruslan Sokolovsky, who was given a three and a half-year suspended sentence for “insulting religious believers” after playing the popular game app in a church, is catastrophic: modern, progressive teenagers witnessing trials like this are being “cut off from all hopes for a better life”.

The resulting alienation is comparable to that described by 19th-century Russian author Ivan Turgenev in his classic 1862 novel of generational strife, Fathers and Sons. It may even be of a greater degree of severity. We’re already witnessing the first outcomes of this, with teenagers attending protests like never before: the divide is only destined to widen as these youngsters grow up and graduate from high school and its limitations. But while they are still confined to classes and homework, phenomena like the Blue Whale scandal, the Pokémon Go court case, internet censorship and the backlash against political protest are only driving generations further apart.

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