Hoaxes: The internet’s latest suicide scare
No, “Momo is not trying to kill children,” and the Momo challenge has turned out to be a hoax, said Taylor Lorenz in TheAtlantic.com. If you haven’t heard of Momo—well, you may be alone. Last week, stories of “Momo,” a terrifying animated character on YouTube telling kids to kill themselves, raced around the globe. Local news amplified the story. Kim Kardashian West shared it with her 129 million Instagram followers. Parents in the U.K. and U.S. fell for it in droves, just as last year parents fell for it across Latin America. The Momo story amplified all the worries parents already had about the internet. It spread so widely because of “a moral panic, fueled by parents’ fears in wanting to know what their kids are up to.”
The Momo scare follows a familiar pattern, said Abby Ohlheiser in The Washington Post. Like the Tide pod challenge, a rumor that kids were being encouraged to eat potentially lethal detergent pods, or the BirdBox challenge, it went viral in spite of plentiful details that “don’t hold up.” It’s not surprising that a scare like this would sweep the globe, said Amanda Sakuma in Vox.com. We’ve been primed for this by lots of similar stories. The turning point was the creepy internet meme of Slender Man. “In the summer of 2014, two 12-year-olds lured a fellow sixth-grader into the woods and stabbed her 19 times, allegedly in hopes of conjuring a dark, mythical being known as the Slender Man.” That an internet meme could inspire an actual murder showed how internet culture could “warp belief systems.” Parents who knew that cautionary tale were ready targets for Momo.
How are kids expected to be smart online if adults keep falling for these hoaxes? asked Madison Malone Kircher in NYMag.com. It’s not just worried parents. “Lazy media outlets” did their part to spread the Momo hysteria. Even as YouTube said that the company had seen no evidence of the Momo video, it spread screenshots of Kardashian West’s Momo tweet. Part of the problem is that adults refuse to believe that such stories have actually been debunked. A colleague told me that in her Facebook parenting group, a member “came under attack after asking for more information from a person who claimed a friend’s child had seen Momo on YouTube.” Eventually the question asker even apologized for questioning the initial posts’ credibility. That’s how hoaxes like this spread. If you keep people from asking questions, you’re “teetering into conspiracy peddling.” ■