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What the media are saying

In early 2021, a ten-year-old girl died at the “Di Cristina” hospital in Palermo, where she arrived in very serious condition due to a cardiac arrest caused by prolonged asphyxia. In reporting the tragic news, the media focused on an alleged “extreme challenge” that ended in tragedy, based on declarations by the victim’s relatives. According to the reporting, this challenge was spreading on social networks such as TikTok. “Dying on TikTok”, “TikTok, the shocking Blackout Challenge: a 10-year-old girl’s brain death“, “Extreme challenge on social media: 10-year-old girl dies of suffocation”: these were just a few of the headlines that appeared in the main Italian newspapers these days. At the same time, the police opened an investigation on a possible lead of incitement to suicide, among other investigative leads.

Facta decided to look deeper into the story, and it tried to verify whether the Blackout challenge (as the game of strangulation was being called) was actually popular on social networks, with a focus on TikTok. We discovered that self-strangulation games were a real, widespread phenomenon that had been happening for at least 25 years, including prior to the existence of social networks.

According to a 2018 article in the US weekly TIME magazine, the instructions for this “game” were originally spread by word of mouth, and the game was “carried out in pairs or groups, with one child squeezing air out of another but stopping just short of the danger point”. As the Internet and social networks gained traction, “with millions of how-to videos on asphyxiation only a finger’s tap away, kids are more likely to play the so-called game alone, choking themselves in their bedroom with their own belts and shoelaces”.

The investigation published on Facta did not find any video of choking among the results of searches on TikTok, Facebook and Instagram for keywords such as “blackout”, “choking game”, “choking” and other terms associated with the alleged “game”. On the other hand, a YouTube search found several results, but all of them were videos that discussed the phenomenon from a critical perspective, underlining its risks and dangers. Therefore, up to the moment when the news of the girl’s death hit the news, there seemed to be no such widespread trend happening in Italy.

Several weeks after the news broke, though, the media reported on the latest developments in the police’s investigation. After having accessed the victim’s smartphone, the investigators had not found any traces of invitations to participate in endurance competitions or extreme challenges, either on social networks (like TikTok) or anywhere else. “If the victim had really been participating in an extreme online challenge, as was hypothesized since the very beginning, according to the investigators’ latest findings nobody instigated nor invited her to do it”, the newspapers were writing at that point.

A few days after the case of the little girl from Palermo, a 9-year-old boy was found lifeless in his home in Bari. According to what was reported, again, by the media, investigators were following several hypotheses, including the possibility of a “gesture of emulation linked to social media challenges”. Headlines linked the child’s death to a challenge this time around, too: “Bari, 9-year-old child died by hanging: ‘A tragic game of emulation’”, one read. This happened despite a cautious statement by the Juvenile Court of Bari’s prosecutor, Ferruccio De Salvatore, who said that up to that moment there were “no elements linking this episode to online games”. According to the most recent developments reported by the media in October 2021, after having obtained confirmation of death by suffocation from the autopsy and having sifted through all the digital devices in the house without finding traces, the Bari Public Prosecutor’s Office presented an international rogatory to obtain the child’s Youtube video chronology, to understand whether his death could be linked to an “extreme online game”.

As we have seen, the media immediately linked these tragic events to alleged online challenges, even in the absence of consolidated and established evidence. These narrative choices – which are not limited to Italian journalism, but happen abroad, too – risk causing negative effects, such as creating interest in potentially dangerous and unknown games or challenges by the general public and favoring the so-called “Werther effect” (or Copycat suicide), i.e. a phenomenon of emulation that leads to an increase in suicides after the media covers a suicide case.

The Not Nut November case

This improper coverage of these two events also falls under the broader category of the (incorrect) methods traditional media employs to tell stories about what happens on the Internet. Usually, this coverage is limited to reporting on the “latest” or “new” trends that have gone viral among teenagers online, without providing context analysis or, in some cases, ending up providing misleading or totally false information.

The so-called No Nut November is a perfect example. The phenomenon was discussed both in Italy (here, here) and in Spain (here, here) in November 2021. One of the Italian articles stated that “this challenge, born on the Internet, asks men to abstain from ejaculation for the whole month of November. And no, masturbation is not excluded. In short, it’s torture”.

The same article also went so far as to report medical opinions, arguing that according to some “experts” – not explicitly mentioned anywhere in the article – there would be “some physical and psychological benefit” behind the challenge, “including greater mental clarity, self-esteem and control of one’s own impulses “. As explained by Rossella Dolce, a psychologist and professor at the University of Milan-Bicocca, this is uncorroborated information. “No benefits can be directly linked to the practice of sexual abstinence”, she says. From a hormonal point of view, the cycle that is created is probably more negative than positive, since it can cause nervousness, anxiety and depression. “Interrupting a non pathological and satisfying sexual practice is more likely to bring negative effects rather than benefits”, she adds. “In the long run, the hormones that regulate desire, estrogens and androgens start failing, and it becomes more difficult to recover a satisfactory and spontaneous sexuality, for all sexes”.

No Nut November is often associated with the NoFap movement, born online in 2011. The movement is very active on Reddit, and it claims to be committed to making people overcome “their sexual addictions, so that they can heal from porn-induced sexual dysfunctions, improve their relationships and, finally, live their lives in a more fulfilling way”. However, as analyst and digital revolution expert Fiorenzo Pilla argues, addiction to pornography is “a complex pathology […] and the treatment of addiction disorder requires integrated therapy, meaning one that can offer an indidual, group and pharmacological approach” – something very different from a social challenge. Therefore, from a scientific point of view, some media coverage appears inaccurate.

In addition to being useless from a medical point of view, this challenge also presents a further problematic aspect: over time, in fact, it seems to have been co-opted by some misogynistic and extreme right-wing groups, chats and forums, as US technology magazine MotherBoard reported in 2018.

Old and new media

As we have seen, a generational short circuit between old and new media represents a significant side of the obstacles in covering social challenges correctly: the old media often misunderstand the way newer media express themselves and they end up distorting their purposes. After all, intercepting the new languages of the Internet is not easy, even more so within a journalistic system like the Italian one. According to 2018 census data concerning journalists enrolled in supplementary pension schemes – that is, journalists who work in the largest newsrooms or that have the most solid contract – the average age in Italian newsrooms was 58.

In short, the Internet is a complex world, and a lack of understanding of its dynamics – be it because of a mere age gap alone – can trigger mechanisms that generate disinformation, moral panics and, in the most extreme cases, emulative phenomena. The most striking case, in this regard, is the one concerning “Jonathan Galindo”. In the second half of 2020, several newspapers and television broadcasts started talking about a “deadly game” that, according to them, had pushed a 11-year-old child to suicide in Naples, through a series of “bravery challenges” that resulted in self-harm. But what was actually happening?

The birth of “Jonathan Galindo”

Jonathan Galindo’s debut in the Italian news took place on 8 July 2020, in an article in Il Resto del Carlino titled “Blades and blood, the last social challenge. ‘Young people driven to commit self-harm”. The story concerned an alleged series of “challenges” that were supposedly spreading among Italian teenagers at the time, coordinated by a mysterious Facebook profile called “Jonathan Galindo”. The author of the piece described him as “a kind of scary Goofy with human features”.

The dynamics of the alleged challenge closely resembled those we already encountered in the third chapter, when we discussed the narrative around the Blue Whale challenge: “Galindo” was supposedly sending Facebook friend requests to kids between the ages of 12 and 15, and then contacting them privately to ask: “Do you want to play?”. Any positive response would trigger a “game of challenges and brevery tests, leading to self-harm”, the Il Resto del Carlino article argued. According to the story, there had been four cases in the province of Ancona alone.

Here’s the thing: “Jonathan Galindo” didn’t exist. Or rather, he existed, but only within a horror story that had been invented on the Internet – or, in Internet jargon, a “creepypasta”, meaning a totally foundationless short horror story meant to be copied and pasted around different corners of the web. These stories are written with the specific intent of instilling fear or anguish in the reader and they represent a real literary genre, which peaked in popularity around 2010, when a story on the subject was published in the New York Times.

One of these stories, dating back to the dawn of the Internet, featured a character called Jonathan Galindo. He was described as a disgraced clown who suffered from a disease that deformed his upper lip. Due to this aesthetic imperfection, Galindo chose to wear makeup that transformed him into a “human Goofy” and began to harbor a growing hatred for children who mocked him because of his physical appearance. In some versions of the story, Galindo would unsuccessfully try to work at the Disneyland amusement park, before going on a murder spree, eventually contacting his victims online.

It’s obvious that Jonathan Galindo is simply the figment of an internet user’s imagination, and that’s what he remained until January 11, 2017, when the Mexican version of Blasting News – an information website that pays its editors based on the number of visits their articles generate – published a story about “Jonathan Galindo’s Facebook profile” and “theories surrounding this strange character dressed as Goofy”. This is the first time Galindo was associated with a specific picture, which was later revealed to be the work of an American artist and mask creator Samuel Canini, also known as Dusky Sam and Sammy Catnipnik online.

Galindo’s story just needed one last ingredient to make a comeback in 2020. It promptly arrived on June 22, when Mexican influencer Carlos Name (1.7 million Instagram followers at the time of publication) published some stories claiming he had seen a “human Goofy” outside his window. It was fictional content, but it went viral to the point of encouraging the creation of several TikTok profiles impersonating Jonathan Galindo. Still, on December 3 2021, there is no evidence of any case of violence – self-inflicted or otherwise – that has been officially linked to the “Jonathan Galindo challenge”.

The languages of the Internet

The lack of communication between old and new media has generated imaginary monsters such as Jonathan Galindo, but the same kind of dynamic had already led foundationless urban legends to be covered by traditional media in the past.

It’s the case of the so-called “Momo Challenge“, which Italian news sites described as a dangerous challenge triggered by a series of chain messages on Whatsapp, allegedly capable of causing the suicide od an Argentinian girl. The story spread between 2018 and 2019, but it was entirely unfounded. In another case, the “Samara Challenge” – a rather harmless game that consisted in frightening passer-bys by dressing up as the protagonist of horror movie The Ring – was blown out of proportion by the media, to the point that Italian consumer protection organization Codacons issued a complaint. In yet another instance, the death of two sixteen-year-old Roman women, Camilla Romagnoli and Gaia von Freymann, was linked to an hypothetical “red light game”. The alleged challenge was discussed for the first time in an article national newspaper Il Messaggero, and it was described as challenging people to “cross the two lanes of Corso Francia while the traffic light is red for pedestrians and cars are speeding, to tempt fate”, recording the experience and publishing everything on social media. The allegations turned out to be unfounded, and they were denied by the evolution of the investigations.

But why are some Internet dynamics so incomprehensible to Italian journalists? We asked Sofia Lincos, editor-in-chief of Query Online and an expert on urban legends:

Traditional journalism and the Internet sometimes speak very different languages, and these languages often end up being incompatible, since they are aimed at heterogeneous audiences with opposite intentions. For instance, throughout its thirty-year evolution, the Net has developed an information exchange model based on collaboration and gratuitousness – best embodied by Wikipedia and Creative Commons, the license that allows you to legally share a wide range of works for free, as well as efforts to search for alternatives to the copyright model, carried out by people like computer activist Richard Stallman.

This particular approach to sharing is still alive and well today on forums and social network platforms, and has contributed decisively to the birth and development of peculiar languages that have asserted themselves online. These languages encompass fictional stories like creepypasta, that were produced with a bottom-up approach and shared for free in particular communities, and memes, a form of communication (made up mostly of images) that exploits user sharing mechanisms and their personal reinterpretations to achieve virality.

It is no coincidence that understanding these new languages is particularly difficult for mainstream journalism, a profession whose business model is largely centered on the ability to monetize content and, at the same time, follows a series of codified ethical rules. Even though these rules are often willingly disregarded.

Why rules for the media exist

How should journalists and media experts behave when they have to report on delicate events, including those that directly concern cases of suicide and risks of emulation? There is a specific set of rules they should live by, and they are very clear on an international level.

In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a document titled “Preventing suicide: a resource for media professionals“, outlining a series of guidelines that should be followed when addressing issues that are more or less related to suicide. The document, which was updated in 2017, reviewed journalistic obligations and duties, providing useful advice and warning media professionals of the main dangers associated with pushing a sensationalistic or careless narrative.

Before reviewing the main rules to follow and the dangers to be on guard against, let’s try to understand why the language the media employs in these occasions is so important.

In 2017, the WHO calculated that about 800,000 people commit suicide globally every year, and that at least six people can be affected by a single one of these cases: therefore, the media plays a key role in “strengthening or weakening” suicide prevention efforts. Several studies have reached the same conclusion, underlining how narratives around suicide (or, more generally, dramatic events) can become a source of inspiration or emulation in itself for the people they reach. For this reason, it is important to invest in the kind of journalism that is capable of informing the public correctly and avert emulations through appropriate narrative techniques.

The influence of the media on people’s behavior – and, in particular, on suicides – is not a recent phenomenon, nor can it be attributed to the presence of the Internet and social networks, as one might mistakenly be tempted to believe. It is actually a much older issue, which concerns the media as a whole. The first retrospective study that demonstrated the negative impact British and American newspapers had on suicides dates back to 1974: the research highlighted that the more the press dwelled on a suicide story, the greater the increase in subsequent suicides.

That’s not all: negative imitative effects were also found in a 1988 study examining an increase in suicides following the broadcasting of some television series. An examination of television broadcasts and news led to the same results. Therefore, in the past as well as today, the problem does not concern the Internet specifically, but the information ecosystem as a whole, without the need to distinguish between old and new media. Today, digital media represent a precious resource for many people who need help, considering how much easier it is to find useful information and contacts. Yet, the Internet can also be a dangerous place: it is also easy to access images and informations on how to commit suicide, and the existance of several communication channels that can be used to bully and harass people are a cause for concern, especially for young people.

Of course, throughout our daily lives, it’s necessary to keep the dangers represented by social media in mind, including those posed by challenges that are either negative or, as we have seen, have been misrepresented by the media. What actually happens when this misrepresentation turns these online “games” into something more dangerous than they initially were? Let’s leave the floor to Sofia Lincos once again.

Circling back to what Lincos said, let’s find out what the international guidelines provided by the World Health Organization on this topic say.

Talking about suicides: risks and benefits of journalistic storytelling

As we have seen, journalistic storytelling can be dangerous when it comes to suicides. The main risk is to narrate a suicide with such an amount of detail and pathos as to affect categories of the public which are already particularly vulnerable (and which often include young people): people suffering from mental illness, those with a history of suicidal behavior or who have experienced a loved one’s suicide. These people – who are part of the public targeted by the journalistic coverage – risk identifying themselves with the victim, especially when the victim’s characteristics are somehow similar to those of the readers/spectators, who may recognise themselves in the story and risk getting carried away.

What should be done to avoid these negative consequences? Let’s find out.

The first thing the WHO recommends avoiding is giving the story excessive visibility: newspapers should place suicide reports at the bottom of the internal pages, rather than on the front page or at the top. Other kinds of media should follow similar rules: TV stories about suicide should not be the opening story in a broadcast, nor should they open radio shows or news updates on social networks. Sensational language should also be avoided (for example, it’s better to use terms like “suicide rate growth” rather than “suicide pandemics”), as should arguments that normalize suicide. “Unsuccessful” or “successful” are expressions that should not be paired with “suicide”, since they imply that suicide is a desirable outcome.

Particular attention must be paid to titles, as misleading terms should be avoided as much as possible. The method the victim used to commit suicide should never be explicitly described, nor should the journalist provide details on the place of death. As for multimedia content, journalists shouldn’t use images, videos or links (for online news) that show the victim or the place where the suicide took place: several studies show how visual content can negatively affect the most vulnerable audience. Letters, text messages or other content left by the victim should never be posted. Finally, narratives that repeat false myths about suicide and end up spreading disinformation harm the public as well as journalism itself. What false myths are we referring to? Here is an explainer:

Myths about suicide

It is important to note that stories of suicide told by the media that comply with the aforementioned rules have a stronge preventive impact. Among the useful advice and ethical rules contained in the WHOS’ guidelines, the organization also suggests providing clear and updated information on prevention and aid centers, including contact details and ways to get in touch with organizations that can help, with a preference for organizations that are nationally recognized and can be reached 24/7.

It is also important not to share false myths or beliefs, and to highlight stories with a protagonist who managed to get through a bad time successfully or who reacted positively to adverse circumstances. That’s not all: the media should pay particular attention when covering the suicides of celebrities or public figures, since they often represent role models. In these cases, the WHO suggests focusing the narrative on the celebrity’s life, on how they contributed positively to society and on how their death negatively affects others.

Finally, it’s fundamental to make good choices when involving the victim’s family or friends in the narrative, since they can play a key role in preventing cases of emulation, but they can also be caught in moments of fragility and pain. Furthermore, it’s necessary to remember that even the people who are telling the story could be in a vulnerable position and require help.

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