On the evening of May 14, 2017, Italian television show Le Iene broadcast a long television report entitled “Blue Whale, committing suicide for fun”. In the video, “hyena” Matteo Viviani walks along a street, points to a building and starts telling a story: “We are in Livorno. That over there is the tallest building in the whole city. Early in the morning on February 4th, a 15-year-old boy got in, climbed to the top of the twenty-sixth floor and committed suicide”. Behind that “absurd gesture”, he says something “even more monstrous” is hidden. “To tell the whole story properly”, Viviani explains, it’s necessary to start from Russia, where “in recent years hundreds of teenagers have committed suicide by throwing themselves off buildings”. As amateur videos of people jumping into the void from different buildings flash by on the screen, accompanied by distressing music, he underlines that “the most disturbing thing is that as they jump off the buildings, they let themselves be filmed” by other kids, who “were there on purpose, following a very specific plan”. In all these cases, the kids were supposed to be “following the rules of a macabre game”, called Blue Whale.
The story of a challenge called Blue Whale, described as a dangerous online game that leads to suicide after a series of tests was not, however, exclusive to Le Iene. For several months, since the beginning of 2017, the Italian media published articles sounding the alarm on the Blue Whale, a “horror challenge” – as one title framed it – that had apparently led to the death of over a hundred teenagers in Russia as well as other European countries.
The Blue Whale story was just the latest example of the Italian media discussing dangerous online challenges with sensationalistic tones: in 2015, for instance, newspaper Il Giornale titled “The latest online madness: sprinkle yourself with alcohol and then set yourself on fire”. In 2016, Il Tempo ran the headline: “Choking until you faint. A new online game scares families”. The challenges were different, but they were all described as part of a dynamic involving young people online that was potentially out of control. This media narrative, though, really exploded in Italy with Le Iene’s report on Blue Whale, leading to negative consequences that will be illustrated later.
Let’s start from the origins of this “macabre game”. To be fair, the story behind it is not yet completely clear, but it looks like real elements were soon added to invented details. The story appears to have originated in Russia, after a girl called Rina Palenkova committed suicide in 2015. She had posted a selfie on Russian social network VKontakte with the caption “Goodbye” the previous day – the photo later became a meme. An in-depth analysis by the BBC reports that her death obtained morbid attention on VK groups populated by teenaers, giving rise over time to fals stories and fabrications about her suicide. Rina’s story was thus merged with other cases of teenage suicide. These groups were soon filled with suicide posts, drawings of Rina Palenkova and mentions of blue whales.
But how did this story conquer newspapers around the world? We asked Andrea Angiolino, a game expert and television author who has dealt extensively with Blue Whale and the fallacies surrounding the story: