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

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs SARAH BROWN

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 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

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