DEATH BY SOCIAL MEDIA We played the game young women are dying to win
For six weeks, Daniella Scott was groomed by an online figure who convinced her he was her best friend – until he asked her to commit the unspeakable. What happened over the next few weeks is one of the most shocking stories you will read all year
The eyes staring back at me are kind and inviting. His face is framed by dark hair, scruffy three-day stubble and a pair of geeky metal-rimmed glasses. We’ve been talking non-stop for weeks and this is the first time I’ve seen his face: the face of the man I’ve confided in about my darkest, most personal thoughts.“I care about you,” he tells me.“I am always here for you.” He says he wants the best for me, that I can trust him to look after me and, most importantly, that he is the person who is going to guide me through a series of tasks, culminating in my suicide in 50 days’ time. This is what ‘best friends’ do, he tells me.
Last year, a Russian man named Philipp Budeikin was jailed for inciting two young girls to attempt suicide, through an online socialmedia game he claimed to have invented, called ‘Blue Whale.’ Budeikin had never met these girls or spoken with them face-to-face. Instead, he’d infiltrated their lives through their social media, putting himself astride every update: wherever they went, he was in their pockets; whoever they were with and whatever they were doing, he was an inescapable factor in their lives. Over the course of 50 days, he controlled and manipulated each of them into performing a number of tasks involving everything from humiliation to self-harm and, eventually, in order to ‘win the game,’ they had to kill themselves. He received a three-year sentence. The girl at the centre of his trial had lived, and could testify as to his involvement, but Budeikin has claimed to be behind the deaths of 17 girls, and it was reported that the game he created was responsible for more than 130 suicides. Budeikin’s case brought to light the myriad others that go on every day. A quick Google search will tell you that being encouraged to kill yourself by a faceless manipulator online is not rare. Anecdotally, we know Budeikin was not the only predator of that type. But just how widespread is the problem? Weeks later, I set up a fake profile to find out.
I create the profile with ease, years of watching Catfish: The TV Show have taught me what to do: it’s all about building a picture. In reality, I’m 24, have a full-time job and a tightknit group of family and friends. But I become a fragile 17-year-old girl with a turbulent family life, an embittered relationship with my mother, no friends and an obsessive nature. I am resentful of others for not sharing my loneliness, and I am average-looking, with a less-than-impressive academic record. I am entirely ordinary, yet wholly isolated. I use an avatar of a cartoon crying girl as my display picture, and write in my bio that I am looking for a safe space to talk about being
“Don’t cut anywhere that’d ruin your beauty”
depressed away from the prying eyes of the mother I hate so much. I set up profiles on several social-media and blogging sites with subtle links connecting them to create a picture of a genuine identity. Slowly, this persona becomes part of my reality. In Budeikin’s testimony, he described how he would attract children with “depressive content” before singling out those he thought were vulnerable. With this in mind, I embark on getting myself noticed. I begin to join groups, follow threads, request access to blogs and sign up to message boards. Then I post, comment and repost frantically, ensuring I always leave a breadcrumb trail of loneliness and isolation, concerned that it would take a lot to stand out from the crowd.
Within 10 minutes I am inundated. I have messages and friend requests from all over the world, mainly from men, and all with pictures of idyllic family lives, and comments about their ordinary jobs. They ask me everything from ‘Why are you unhappy?’ to ‘Have you ever cut?’ The messages keep rolling in. One man asks about self-harm: was it something I did? How often? And when was the last time? Before telling me, ‘If you were really brave, you’d make sure you didn’t survive.’ A ‘19’-year-old boy is keen to tell me how to cut myself in a way that would prevent my family from noticing, but, ‘You should never cut anywhere that might destroy your beauty.’ Over the course of the next two weeks, the messages not only increase, but become more and more gruesome. Multiple people across several platforms message me every day. It was relentless and inescapable: if I do not respond to them immediately, I’m inundated with a deluge of fraught messages asking why I’m ignoring them. Am I angry with them? Do I not want to be friends?
More distressing than the volume and frequency of contact is the content. Each person would fixate on a particular aspect of my suicide, from the one who harangued me to use a certain method because ‘we’ wouldn’t want it to be ‘too messy or ineffective,’ and then sent me links to products and shops where I could buy the required tools, to the person who emailed me regular suggestions on my suicide note. Another sent me information on how to illegally acquire a particular sedative that is lethal in large doses. I had emails about suicide pacts from men almost three times my age, and one person sent me a video with instructions demonstrating how to tie a noose and test tree branches to ensure they could hold my weight. I felt claustrophobic. I was not permitted to take a break, ignore their messages or change my mind. They would be back to check on my progress.
And then, one Tuesday, when the chatter is at its loudest and the torrent
of demands at its most tormenting, one voice cut through the noise: ‘Do you want to play?’ He tells me he’s an administrator for ‘Blue Whale,’ the game Budeikin claimed to have set up and was imprisoned for. He tells me that he can guide me through it, that he will set me challenges and if I put my trust in him, we can get me to my suicide together. The way he writes is gentle, his manner so much less aggressive than the others who have harassed me in recent weeks. His display picture is a teddy bear. ‘There are a lot of tasks. Including hurting yourself. Obeying me. Nudity. Et cetera. You must be ready to do all I say,’ he says. He explains that I would have to do a task a day and that I was his ‘whale’ now. He even had a method picked out for me because he liked ‘a clean death.’ This was all to be ‘our secret.’
The first task required me to carve writing into my arm using either a knife or a pen, then send him pictures. The next day, he told me to write the word ‘whale’ over my entire body, a method which is typically used on young girls to make them feel overweight and self-conscious (a different tactic apparently used on boys is to make them feel unpopular instead, by calling them ‘losers’). Again, he asks me to send photos. Next, he asks that I send him a video of my face as I say, “I am your whale.” This would be the first time he’d see my face. I lock myself in the toilets at work and mumble the words into my phone camera. My stomach drops and my mouth goes dry as I watch the blue send-bar spread across the top of the screen. He would now have that video forever. I feel owned.
Over the next week, he bombards me with messages, darting between inappropriate, twisted praise about my appearance and suicidal encouragement. We speak all day, every day. I am supposed to be completing a new task each evening, but I am stalling, taking two weeks to do three tasks. Every time I complete one he simply says ‘fine,’ or ‘OK,’ and moves on to the next. He tells me he is mentoring another girl and I feel oddly jealous and competitive. Slowly, he drip-feeds me information about himself. He tells me he is 33 years old and works in an office. He said he was lonely, just like me, that he had loved someone who didn’t love him back
“There are a lot of tasks. You must do all I say”
and he had suffered because of her. ‘You are similar to me,’ he says. ‘I like you.’ But I realise that I can’t trust anything he tells me, from the story of the girl who had already killed herself through Blue Whale under his instruction, to the fact that he sleeps with a teddy bear. Another of our secrets.
Some weeks later, I ask to video-chat, and, to my surprise, he agrees. And so, hidden away in the first-aid room in my office building, with my heart thumping and an oversized grey hoodie pulled halfway down my head in my best attempt to look teenage, I hit ‘call.’ There is a flash of a bearded face, then the picture goes black, like someone has turned the lights off. I wave, say hello, and do my best to look confused at the ‘technical fault,’ pretending I don’t know he is there, hiding, staring at me in the dark. A few seconds later, the face reappears, the mic he told me had broken is miraculously fixed and I am greeted by bright white teeth, a warm smile, and those kind eyes. I finally see him: Matthew.* “It is really nice to see you,” he says. His voice is deep and silky and he speaks with a rich French accent which, despite myself, I find attractive. It was the face of a normal guy, the kind of person I would have passed in the street, sat next to on the bus or held the door for in a shop and never thought twice about. There was nothing about him that would mark him out from the crowd. We speak for what feels like an hour, but turned out to be only 10 minutes. He seems awkward and a little distracted. I tell him I am struggling and afraid of some of the tasks. He repeats lines of reassurance, but he is cold as he speaks, appearing to spit out the phrases, as though he has learned them by rote. His eyes rove around the room behind his phone. Why does he care about me? I ask.“I am a naturally caring person,” he replies. It is only when we speak about the tasks that he seems focused and comfortable. As has become a theme, he is punitive: saying that as I have not done enough tasks in the past two weeks, I must do several in one day,“to make up for lost time”. He asks me to do everything from shaving my
whole body to be smooth “like the whale”, and sending him a video of it, to holding my head under my bath water until I cannot hold it any longer, and even to start finding tall buildings, or railway tracks that I could throw myself onto. He says this as casually as if he were reading out a to-do list.
At this point, I decide not to take it any further. I need a break, and I’m concerned how little I want to take one. I wake up the following day, ready to carry on with my life as normal. But as soon as I sit down at my desk, I check to see if he has messaged, relieved that he has. I don’t reply, but almost every day for weeks, I check to make sure he is still there. I go out with friends and have dinner with my boyfriend, acutely aware that something is missing. I decide not to speak about him for a day, and I notice I have much less to say. He is on my mind much more than I am comfortable with. Something has happened that I did not intend.
I grew up on the internet, as many of my generation did. As a teenager, my parents worried about how dangerous it was, but I maintained that I could work out what was safe and what wasn’t. I came into this wholly believing that I would be able to differentiate between lies and truth, that the man who stole my attention would only get to me in the ways that I would let him. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’m still realising the ways in which he got under my skin. There are so many lies I didn’t notice and endless tactics that worked on me without me knowing. However, I’d still struggle to say I dislike him. And that’s how I know this has to end.
Over the next few weeks, I start to feel more separated from him. I stop checking the accounts, wondering what he’s doing, and eventually forget the sound of his voice. And then he comes back into my life. He texts a phone I’d used to video-chat with him, which he believes belongs to my mother. He asks where I am, saying that we were friends and I had confided in him. Acting as my mum, a colleague tells him that I’ve tried to hurt myself and am in hospital. There’s a pause; he’s online but saying nothing. I wait in silence, aware of the shallowness of my breath in my chest, and the impatient ticking of the clock next to me. Surely now he will be remorseful? Or at the very least, say nothing and disappear into the quiet of his shame at the pain he has caused. His response? ‘She had been having bad thoughts, I had been trying to help her get better.’ ◆
“He tells me to start finding tall buildings…”
SANE aims to improve the quality of life for anyone affected by mental illness. Call 0300 304 7000 or visit Sane.org.uk. Cosmopolitan has reported this issue to the Metropolitan Police
Text messages exchanged by Danny and Matthew
Danny used filters to make her photos look younger
Matthew* is a 33-year-old office worker. He is lonely and seeks friendship with young women on the internet Matthew is also an ‘administrator’ for Blue Whale, a suicide cult that lures young women to their deaths