Culture Feature

Learn from Momo: How to Create a Viral Hoax

It takes time, effort, and incredibly lazy press coverage to exploit the public's fear successfully.

NBC Philadelphia

Somewhere in America's heartland, there's an Internet mastermind targeting children by injecting a monstrous face into kids' content telling them to hurt themselves — or so the "Momo challenge" leads appalled parents to believe.

The viral hoax resurfaced after alarmed parents and law enforcement in Northern Ireland published warnings that children's videos on social media and YouTube were being hacked. Some versions of the challenge detail a perverse game of Simon Says in which children are manipulated to complete dangerous tasks, including self-harm and suicide, to prevent being "cursed."

None of the reports of the so-called "challenge" have been confirmed. YouTube has stated that no videos have been found with the devious visage, and any videos imitating the challenge would be flagged and removed immediately under their recently tightened policies. Still, imagine the spasms of fear experienced by protective parents who believe their children are in danger. The threat seems all the more real given the amount of news coverage from trusted outlets. On Thursday, CBS reported a Northern California mother's testimony that her 12-year-old autistic daughter began asking about "suicide" and turned on their gas stove after Momo clips began popping up in otherwise innocuous videos the child was watching. "She's on the spectrum and a lot of children that are, are very impressionable," the mother told reporters. Just days before, Kim Kardashian reposted alarmed warnings from parents and called for YouTube to "please help!" Despite YouTube's clarification that Momo is a hoax, Kardashian's Instagram story posted to her 129 million followers and was republished by major publications like TMZ, People, and Entertainment Tonight.

In reality, instead of a murderous misanthrope warring with civilization by replacing Peppa Pig's head with a wraith, the frightening face is from the mind of a Japanese special effects artist named Keisuke Aisawa. He created the Mother Bird sculpture for his horror film props company, Link Factory. Its gaunt features and distorted human face resemble the ubume creature in Japanese folklore, a bird-woman hybrid who died during childbirth and haunts unsuspecting strangers. In 2016, the sculpture was displayed at Vanilla Gallery in Tokyo, which is how it was first exposed to the Internet.

Once it was shared in the Reddit thread r/creepy, over 5,000 upvotes and a flood of comments spread its online fame. It's unknown exactly how the sculpture escalated from ghoulish meme material to a public safety warning, but Rolling Stone noted, "Per Google trends, the Momo challenge didn't really pick up steam in the English-speaking world until YouTuber ReignBot made a video devoted to unpacking the phenomenon in July 2018. According to the video, those who texted 'Momo's' number were told to complete a series of bizarre and increasingly dangerous tasks, starting with something innocent, like watching a horror movie late at night, and ending with a call for kids to self-harm or take their own lives. Failure to complete the tasks apparently would result in their personal information being leaked or threats of violence."

The "Momo Challenge" joins other perverse hoaxes like the Russian-based "Blue Whale" challenge and the rumor that teens were poisoning themselves with Tide Pods. But the Internet (especially Reddit) is flooded with conspiracy theories and urban legends by the hour — so why do some gain worldwide traction?

Timing: In regards to Momo, the general public is particularly on edge about protecting the innocent these days. At the end of 2018, the F.B.I. released its annual report assessing hate crimes and noted an overall rise for the third consecutive year. In the months since a stream of unsettling reports have detailed multiple immigrant children dying while in U.S. Border Patrol custody. Additionally, #MeToo culture is primed to protect the vulnerable from attack and on high alert to call out assaulters.

Benjamin Radford, a research fellow for the Committee for Skeptic Inquiry (a real organization, apparently), makes it his business to know when, how, and why urban legends enter the public consciousness. He told Rolling Stone, "There's no real truth to [the Momo Challenge] or evidence that it's a real threat." He explains that hoaxes featuring new technology, like Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Youtube, naturally create "a moral panic, fueled by parents' fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to…You have adults, who may be baby boomers — maybe they don't text, maybe they're not comfortable with technology. They're wondering, 'My daughter is always on my phone, who's she talking to? What's going on there?' There's an inherent fear in what young people are doing with technology."

Internet Trolls: But a viral hoax can't gain traction without real people willing to exploit the fear and shock value it sets off in the general public. When the "Blue Whale" challenge became viral in Russia, there had already been a large uptick in the rate of teen suicides that year. A real Internet troll named Philipp Budeikin took advantage of the distressing trend to gain followers, creating Facebook groups purporting to orchestrate the deaths. He was arrested and sentenced to three years in a Russian jail after his actions genuinely encouraged two teens to attempt suicide (luckily, they were saved).

Sensationalized Press Coverage: Hoaxes gain momentum when they can overlap, however nebulously, with real events. This is only made easier when news outlets prefer to sensationalize stories rather than thoroughly fact check. Budeikin created only one of many instances in which a viral hoax seems to rack up casualties by exploiting actual deaths due to unrelated causes.

Such lazy reporting conflates hoaxes with random, unconnected events or spreads completely fabricated reports. The Guardian's Jim Waterson tried to unpack "Momo Challenge's" virality on Twitter, posting, "The coverage of the Momo challenge is possibly some of most irresponsible journalism in this country for ages. Samaritans say they've got no evidence of serious harm to children but the press coverage could now be putting vulnerable people at risk."

That's the crux of Internet hoaxes: they may be fictional, but they're not harmless. Last year, fervent press coverage warning against the "trending" Tide Pod challenge (which wasn't trending) led handfuls of real teens to go ahead and try it, leading to a modest rise in the number of teens reporting to Poison Control after they'd ingested the detergent. Devastatingly moronic was the 2014 "Fire Challenge" daring teens to set themselves on fire — but "only" quickly and in a "cool" way, so says the dare — which led to a 12-year-old girl being hospitalized with second and third-degree burns over half of her body.

When half-assed reporting and social media legitimize a hoax by treating it as a credible threat, we risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which public fear of a hoax inspires individuals to actualize it. With Momo, select Internet trolls have attempted to actually insert images of the Momo face into video content; luckily, the clips are either blocked or quickly detected and taken down. But in 2014, the urban legend of Slender Man infamously crossed over into crime news after two 12-year-old girls stabbed their classmate 19 times. They claimed to be under the creature's influence, with their defense counsel arguing that they were so taken by the myth of Slender Man that they suffered a "delusion" to impress him by murdering their classmate (somehow, the victim survived).

Regardless if this was a ploy to subsume guilt or the girls' genuine belief at the time, the crime was real. In Northern California, the concerned mother who told CBS that her autistic daughter tried to harm herself due to Momo videos said, "She kept telling me about Momo and I just didn't understand, I see now." What she likely experienced was her daughter's curiosity about the widely-publicized challenge. Of course she'd ask her mother about "suicide" and "Momo" when the words have been repeated in the last month's news cycle so often (compared to last year, they have been used twice as often in headlines in newspapers alone).

The feedback loop of the Internet creates a breeding ground for urban legends. Slender Man is often explained as a Tulpa or a mythical "thoughtform" that physically manifests when enough people believe it. In many ways, the Internet wields the same spooky power, to perpetuate an idea enough that people cling to it, taking it upon themselves to make it real.

Meg Hanson is a Brooklyn-based writer, teacher and jaywalker. Find Meg at her website and on Twitter @megsoyung.

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