If you've never watched the cult British TV series Black Mirror, then I suggest you rectify that. It holds up what is indeed a very black mirror to our modern technological and slightly paranoid society. It's not science fiction exactly, but neither is it the comfortable, morally unambiguous life that most of us lead day to day. It is a dark take on how things might turn out, indeed how they might already be if we but knew.
One episode in particular, called Shut up and Dance, is particularly disturbing. A series of individuals receive mysterious, and mysteriously knowledgeable, messages directing them to carry out increasingly violent and shameful acts or face having equally shameful personal secrets revealed to their loved ones. Even after breaking all their deepest-held personal moral codes, though, their secrets are ultimately revealed anyway, and the characters end up being punished for both their original misdemeanors as well as for their imposed crimes. No underlying mastermind is ever exposed, and we are led to conclude that it is somehow the Internet itself that is spying on and blackmailing these unfortunate people, and generally making their lives a misery.
So, it was perturbing to read today about an Internet-mediated cult or game in Russia, known as the Blue Whale game (after the whales' propensity to fatally beach themselves for unknown reasons). According to some reports in the Russian media, gleefully picked up by the British gutter press, teenagers (particularly pretty girls, it seems) are being seduced by cryptic online videos, that are propagated mainly through the social network VKontakte and filled with obscure ciphers and codes, into fulfilling a series of challenges, often involving some kind of self-harm, culminating after 50 days with the directive to commit suicide. Some Russian news outlets have reported 130 recent suicides that have been "linked" to this practice, a statistic that has been been bandied about ever since.
Except that it is far from clear whether such a suicide club actually exists at all, much less that 130 young girls have lost their lives to it. Radio Free Europe has reported that its own investigations into the alleged cult have drawn a blank, and hoax-monitoring websites Snopes.com has deemed the story "unproven".
So, it seems likely that this is just another one of those false news/conspiracy theories, and thank God for that. But it speaks volumes that such a nefarious scheme could be taken so seriously, to the extent that at least one British police force saw fit to warn the local populace against it, calling on parents to remain vigilent for mentions of Blue Whale in their children's social media feeds. What a dark world we live in!