Tunisian court orders ban on lethal ‘Blue Whale Challenge’ after suicides

The court also called for a ban on the horror game ‘Mariam’.
Saturday 10/03/2018
A file photo of a blue whale swimming in deep waters. (AFP)
A file photo of a blue whale swimming in deep waters. (AFP)

TUNIS - When a 12-year-old girl committed suicide in the small Tunisian town of Kelibia, parents and neighbours were stunned.

“She was one of the first in her class…I didn’t think this game would make her kill herself,” the girl’s father, Hatem Samoud, told Tunisian media.

He was referring to the “Blue Whale Challenge,” an online horror game in which players are instructed by administrators to complete 50 macabre challenges — the last being suicide.

Unlike other games, the “Blue Whale Challenge” is not thought to be directly accessible through downloads, websites or software. Users connect to administrators through coded hashtags on social media and private groups, from which they pass the challenge on to friends.

Samoud’s daughter, Maissa, was reportedly one of more than 100 people worldwide to have died after being drawn into the game’s nightmarish delusion: “My son later told me she was scared that they would kill me and her mother if she didn’t do the tasks they asked,” Samoud said.

While Maissa’s death was shocking, it was part of a growing — and troubling — trend. In February, Tunisia was hit with a wave of child suicides, at least five reportedly linked to the “Blue Whale” game. Parents and teachers called on government officials to ban the challenge.

A court in Sousse on March 6 ordered the Tunisian Internet Agency (ATI) to block access to the game on social media and downloading sites. The court also called for a ban on the horror game “Mariam,” which many compared to the “Blue Whale Challenge” because of its dark overtones and personal instructions.

While “Mariam” has not been linked to suicides or self-harm, critics said it prompts children to disclose private information that could be used against them.

‘Blocking all access to the game is likely impossible’ 

The rise of virtual games like the “Blue Whale Challenge” and “Mariam” raises questions about suicide, mental health, social responsibility and internet privacy. ATI, when requested by the court to block access to the games, said it sought to avoid internet censorship and would appeal the decision.

ATI CEO Jawher Ferjaoui told Tunisian media that implementing a ban on the games would be complicated and that a more appropriate solution may be to utilise parental control mechanisms.

Even if ATI follows through with a ban, however, the experiences of internet providers in other countries indicate such a policy is difficult to carry out.

“‘Blue Whale’ is not a game in the sense of being a video or an app or a website or any structured product. If it exists, it is an activity, just as ‘Truth or Dare’ has been a ‘game’ played by teenagers over the decades,” Ben Roberts, chief technical officer of Liquid Telecom Group and chairman of Liquid Telecom Kenya, told Business Today in May 2017 following a court order to block access to the game in Kenya.

“As a ‘game’, it may be something that teenagers are doing on social media, setting these dares in groups or across accounts but it has no identifiable structure or means of being prevented or blocked by internet service providers.”

Internet providers and government officials in India voiced similar concerns after attempting to block access to the game last year, when more than a dozen linked suicides were reported.

While the government blocked certain networks where the game was being shared — specifically Russia’s VKontakte, where it is thought to have originated — the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology later said it was unable to effectively curb overall access.

“It is believed that ‘Blue Whale’ game was being communicated by one-to-one communication through encrypted/secretive communication links. Hence, it is difficult to identify, intercept and analyse the contents,” the government said.

In Tunisia, questions over how to regulate dangerous online content intersect with another thorny issue: radicalisation. Since the rise of the Islamic State in 2014, as many as 7,000 Tunisians have left the country to join the group’s ranks in Syria and Iraq. Many of those fighters were radicalised online or communicated with foreign terror operatives over the internet.

Some experts say the solution to online radicalisation and dangerous digital content is not censorship but social programmes at local and community levels.

For games like the “Blue Whale Challenge,” the government has set up “regional committees of psychologists, doctors, and educators,” said Sabri Bhibah, delegate for the protection of children in Kairouan.

“The ministry has also launched an awareness campaign, sending text messages to parents to (raise awareness on) the danger of online games and the importance of supervising their children.”

Bhibah added: “We are trying to provide support for the children and trying to get them to speak about this app and not to be afraid of it. We will be visiting the schools and all educational institutions with the guidance of specialists who can advise on the right discourse to address the issue with children and teenagers.”