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White or Blue, the Whale gets its Vengeance: A Social Media Analysis of the Blue Whale Challenge

The Blue Whale Challenge - a set of tasks that must be completed in a duration of 50 days - is an online social media rage. The tasks of the “game” cause both physical and mental harm to the players; the final task is to take his/her own life. The tasks include waking up at odd hours, listening to psychedelic music, watching scary videos, inflicting cuts and wounds on their bodies and the final task is to commit suicide. The game is supposedly administered by people called “curators” who incite others to take the challenge, brainwash them to cause self harm and ultimately commit suicide. Most conversations between curators and players are suspected to take place via direct message but, in order to find curators, the players need a public platform where they can express their desire to play the game - knowingly or unknowingly. Online social media serves as this platform as people post about not just their desire to be a part of the game but also details and pictures of the various tasks they perform.
Our goal was to understand the social media spread of the challenge and try to find patterns in the behaviour of possible players. We collected public data from 3 social networks - VK, Instagram and Twitter - using the 2 hashtags: #i_am_whale, #curatorfindme. VK is a Russian social network where the game actually originated as a task of the game required the person to post about the challenge on it. Query expansion was performed to include the following hashtags/keywords as well: #f57, #wakemeupat420, #iamawhale, #I_am_whale, #iamwhale, #imwhale. Hashtags like #bluewhalechallenge, and #bluewhale were avoided as they contained a lot of noise in terms of news and other unrelated posts.

Summary methodology

On the collected data, we performed the following 3 types of analysis:

(a) Temporal analysis
We collected the temporal data of users who posted about the challenge. The difference between the first and last “blue whale related” post of users on Instagram is around 22.5 hours - reason can be moderation of posts - which is way less than VK where the difference is around 200 hours and Twitter where that difference can go up till 2000 hours. But it is seen that in case of VK, around 85% of the users continued posting for less than an hour and in case of Twitter,  this was around 81.25% of the users’ behavior. One reason for this can be moderation of posts on different social networks. Another possible reason is that people just posted because they were curious about the hype around the challenge and they weren’t generally interested in being a part of it. Yet there were a few users who showed consistent behavior and continued posting about the challenge for a long time. Another interesting observation was that on both Instagram and VK,  such users do not have a high number of followers/followings and friends. On manual verification, we also found that most of these user IDs were actually new and only contained posts about the challenge.


 Time difference between first and last Blue Whale related post. 

(b) Network analysis
The network analysis was divided into 2 parts: friends/followers network and user-comments network. In both the cases we observed that VK had a denser graph as compared to Instagram. The comment network on VK had an average clustering coefficient of 0.012 whereas on Instagram this network was too sparse. Similarly, the friends network on VK had an average clustering coefficient of  0.262 and in case of Instagram, we were unable to find any follower-following links between the collected users. The nodes in the below Network are the users present in our dataset which are connected when (left) they are friends (right) they comment on other person's post.

(Left) VK Friends Network (Right) VK Comments Network 


(c) Content analysis
We analysed the content of the posts related to blue whale and used this to build a classifier to predict whether a post is “blue whale indicative” or not. We have used NLTK to preprocess the posts data by stemming each post into a bag of words. Using this collection we mapped each post in the dataset to an array of ones and zeros. This array was fed into a neural network where model learnt the required weights for the classifier. The test accuracy of the classifier came out to be 89%.
 



Data description


We also collected a lot of sensitive information in terms of phone numbers, email IDs, WhatsApp group links and links to audio and video files containing psychedelic music and scary videos. PII such as phone numbers and email IDs revealed by people - who wanted to be contacted by curators - can actually be misused and hence is a privacy concern.



Amount and type of sensitive information shared across various social media to play Blue Whale Challenge.


USER BEHAVIOR
(a) Potential Victim
Users who are depressed and ready to go to any extent to become a part of the game fall under this category. Such users often tend to reveal personal information like phone numbers, email addresses etc. so that curators can contact them.
Cut arms of users taking the Blue Whale Challenge. One or more tasks of the challenge involve conducting self-mutilation and taking posting pictures of it. (source: Vkontakte.com)

(b) Propagator
Users who post about the challenge with the intention of promoting it fall under this category. In extreme rare cases, it is possible that these propagators might be curators but such an event is highly unlikely as curators would not risk revealing their identity. There have been cases where propagators share the images of the 50 tasks along with the links to APK files - which are not related to the game - misleading the users into believing that an application for the game exists. Some propagators also tend to share images of victims.

Posts by a potential propagator. (source: Vkontakte.com)

(c) Beneficiary
There are users that use the Blue Whale challenge related hashtags in their posts just to garner attention and get some reactions on their posts.These people contribute to the noise in the data collected.

Blue Whale related cases in different countries.

So the Blue Whale Challenge is a “game” that spread on online social media and people across the world have fallen prey to it. There are many who don’t even know what the challenge is all about but go around posting about it just because there is a great media hype about it. India tops the chart in terms of searches related to the challenge and its “APK” file though nothing of that sort exists now. The complexity of this problem is that it is very difficult to differentiate whether a person was genuinely depressed and started playing the game or whether he/she showed no such symptoms yet fell prey to the game and performed the self-harming task under some sort of pressure. This makes it difficult to even pinpoint deaths caused due to the challenge.
But the real question now is, given that the creator of the game is in prison and so are 2 other curators/administrators, how is the game still alive? Are there more such “curators” left or are there bots? Or is it just a self-propagating game such that anyone on the internet can pose as a curator and incite people to play the game and commit suicide? Our bet is on the last possibility.


Initial Brainstorming





Images from end-semester project presentation

Meet the team: (left to right) Kshitij Gupta, Karan Dabas, Abhinav Khattar, Shaan Chopra


References:
http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/true-stories/blue-whale-suicide-game-administrator-arrested-in-moscow/news-story/a5b16a802f7dc21a79dbff78e9f11bd3
https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/meet-the-22-year-old-creator-of-the-blue-whale-death-game/articleshow/59860662.cms
http://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/russian-police-arrest-17-year-old-girl-for-being-mastermind-behind-blue-whale-challenge/story-XJrB2C2jiYVXwQJfyIKLDO.html
http://heavy.com/social/2017/07/blue-whale-challenge-app-youtube-suicide-what-is/
https://www.netfamilynews.org/blue-whale-game-fake-news-teens-spread-internationally
https://www.buzzfeed.com/praneshprakash/reckless-journalism-created-a-blue-whale-panic-when-we?utm_term=.dyzy3Zly3#.iqJZM64ZM
https://www.higgypop.com/news/how-to-find-the-blue-whale-game/
https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/blue-whale-game-strikes-india-again-young-boy-uploads-fb-video-asking-for-help-to-pull-him-out-329113.html
https://www.reddit.com/r/morbidquestions/comments/5xsnpq/what_are_the_exact_50_challenges_in_the_blue/
http://www.rediff.com/getahead/report/blue-whale-challenge-blue-whale-game-google-trends-search-highest-in-india-rank-no1/20170901.htm
http://indianexpress.com/article/india/blue-whale-challenge-these-are-the-suspected-cases-india-4798745/
https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/worldnews/3003805/blue-whale-suicide-victims-russia-uk-deaths-latest/
http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/blue-whale-challenge-india-highest-number-of-searches-google-trends/1/1037717.html
http://www.snopes.com/blue-whale-game-suicides-russia/
http://heavy.com/news/2017/07/blue-whale-challenge-deaths-list-how-many-people-americans-died-suicide-teens-hoax-real/
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/048a/43b5059ffc16a30124be3bbf5e1a8f0b7702.pdf
http://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2093538/groups-linked-suicide-game-found-chinese-messaging-site
http://www.scmp.com/news/china/society/article/2094796/chinese-student-charged-extremism-over-blue-whale-suicide-game
https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/russian-social-network-vkontakte-temporarily-blocked-in-india-for-blue-whale-threat/articleshow/60478655.cms
https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/blue-whale-national-problem-tv-channels-must-spread-awareness-supreme-court-1767939
https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/panel-formed-to-probe-blue-whale-game-suicide-cases-government-to-delhi-hc/articleshow/61055715.cms
https://psyarxiv.com/8xh92/


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