About viral media scares like ‘Momo’

There’s no rhyme or reason to these things. They show up on different social media platforms, start in different parts of the world, but don’t always take off in regions where they started. There are cultural aspects to what makes them go viral but also universal ones: They “excite children’s and teens’ imaginations, increase careless media outlets’ appetite and opportunities for bigger audiences, and provoke panic among parents,” as media literacy expert Georgi Apostolov at Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre put it. So here’s perspective on the latest ones, with thoughts for parents….

Momo is another one of these viral media “things” that nobody is sure what to call. Probably the best term is “viral media scares.” Like the “Blue Whale game” of 2015-‘17 and the “neknomination” dare earlier in this decade, the very reason why it’s internationally viral is that it’s really creepy, strikes fear in the hearts of adults who care about kids, and spreads widely through social media (with a whole lot of help from mainstream news media, which tends to cover things that go viral).

Because multiplying news reports refer to Momo as “a suicide challenge,” police rightfully feel obligated to look for any connection to it when they investigate cases. Then they tell reporters who ask about a connection that they’re checking into that. That’s what happened in a case reported by the Buenos Aires Times, but we haven’t been able to find a single report of police in any country confirming that a minor’s suicide was linked to Momo.

So what is it?

What “Momo” is, it seems, is accounts in WhatsApp (but also seen in Reddit, YouTube and Instagram) that reportedly send a message saying something like, “you should send a message to this number ______, which will send you predictions about your future.” According to some reports, the message might include a threat that the recipient will be cursed if they don’t reply. If someone does contact “Momo,” they reportedly get other threats, frightening photos, and/or challenges to complete harmful tasks. So people who reply to or contact a Momo account are basically giving someone permission to troll them — and possibly send malware to their phones, some reports say. Momo is more than one account because copycats often join the “fun” as coverage grows, and more than one phone number associated with it has been found in WhatsApp.

Momo doesn’t appear to be as widespread as Blue Whale was, but this could be early days. As with other viral scares, the creators have no intention to be found. So it’s really hard to know how this one got started and who started it where on the Internet — which is why media outlets typically just cite each other as sources (even sketchy supermarket-tabloid-type publications in other countries). So we’re looking at a sort of vicious circle of quasi-news reporting.

Where it’s showing up

Some reporters are more responsible in their reporting than others. Heavy.com, which is rated “high” for factual reporting by MediaBiasFactCheck.com, found that Momo so far has had the most media coverage — and thus raised the most concern — in Spanish-speaking countries. Heavy also reported that its creepy profile photo depicts a sculpture created by a special effects company in Japan called Link Factory, not Midori Hayashi, the Japanese artist mentioned in too many fear-fomenting news reports citing other scary news reports.

It might help parents and kids on the alert for Momo-like contacts to know that Heavy and other news outlets have reported that three Momo-associated phone numbers have been found so far, one that appears to be from Japan, with country code 813, one from Colombia (52) and one from Mexico (57). If someone with a ridiculously creepy profile photo pops up in your app, click to their profile to see if their phone number has one of those country codes (though the photo will probably tip you off right away!).

Talking points for families

Checking in: Honest curiosity works better than fear or anxiety when talking with kids about what they’re seeing in social media. There’s nothing wrong with parental concern, but — if you’re feeling it — tell your kids you are and why, then ask them if they’ve come across anything about Momo and where. Most likely it was from a peer, another parent or a teacher rather than from some sinister profile itself. But if they have WhatsApp, ask them if they’ve seen anything about it there. It’s super unlikely that they replied, but if they did, just advise them to block and report that contact — and make sure they know you have their back whenever they’re creeped out by something like this online.

Most kids smart, some vulnerable: The thing is, most kids don’t want to give trolls (or anybody) permission to torment them — unless, of course, peer pressure’s involved. If peers are involved, they’re likely to be messing with “Momo” together, as a kind of game, in effect “protecting” each other from emotional harm. They’re not likely to invite trouble unless they’re at risk or vulnerable in other ways, in which case caring adults in their lives are probably aware of their vulnerability. If not, those adults could talk with their child along the lines suggested just above and use “Momo” as an opportunity to let their kids know, again, that they love them, have their backs, and will do their best to provide whatever appropriate care is needed.

Zooming in: You may see reports about law enforcement linking Momo to suicide cases. Look at the words reporters and their sources use. In most cases (when reported responsibly), investigators say “may be linked to the Momo challenge” (emphasis ours) or they’re looking into any such association. Responsible reporters use words like “reportedly” and “allegedly” when referring to information that can’t be confirmed.

Exactly what’s viral?: Think about what it is that’s going viral and why: Is it the threat itself or news of the threat? Whether it’s called a “game,” “challenge,” or “scare,” very often what we’re seeing is a viral response to it more than the thing itself. We’re reacting to the exposure of that creepy thing not the thing itself. After all, the photo of the bird-girl sculpture in Japan is definitely creepy, especially when the person who posts it zooms in on just the face. But the more we see it, the less of a problem it is (see “Stealth intelligence” below), right? Because we start to dismiss it as a “been there, seen that” kind of thing.

For further info

  • A different one in Europe: Not as viral (yet, maybe), but another “suicide game” scare reported by British tabloid The Sun (like the ones sold by supermarket checkout stations in the U.S.). Called “Deleted,” it’s more like the global Blue Whale scare of 2015-’17 in that it’s associated with online “death groups” that young Russians allegedly join. But it’s unlike Blue Whale in that, as of this writing, it seems to be more a media story than an actual threat in the UK or outside of Eastern Europe, and also as of this writing, we could find only one story about it in the UK with a search in Google News. If we start to see more media scares running simultaneously around the world, news consumers may actually start seeing them for the clickbait that they mainly are. Here is vital perspective from the Safer Internet Centre in Bulgaria, leading source on the international Blue Whale scare.
  • The “clickbait” part: Sometimes it’s super scary stories, sometimes it’s offers of free stuff. What makes stories go viral is “kind of a complex thing as a mixture of misinformation, phishing, scamming, bad advertising and monetization,” Peerapon Anutarasoat, the lead fact-checker for the Thai News Agency’s anti-fake news project, told the U.S.’s Poynter Institute, which focuses on journalistic ethics. Poynter was looking into how misinformation spreads on Line, the messenger service like WeChat and WhatsApp that started in Japan. In Poynter’s story, the “free stuff” is digital stickers, which are extremely popular in Taiwan, Thailand and Indonesia. The clickbait accounts lure new users in with offers of free stickers, then start pushing “bogus health products” at them, for example.
  • The “juvenoia” part: About the Momo scare, Larry Magid, tech journalist and my co-founder at ConnectSafely.org, wrote that “dire warnings about children dying because of apps and games is a form of ‘juvenoia’,” alluding to a term coined by Prof. David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children back in 2011. His definition was “the exaggerated fear of the influence of social change [including technology] on youth.” Here’s more on juvenoia.
  • Stealth intelligence: BBC Brazil cited a report by ReignBot, a YouTuber who intelligently “explores creepy internet weirdness” like Momo, that — as of this writing — has gotten more than 2 million views (YouTube responsibly put up an interstitial saying the video “may be inappropriate or offensive to some audiences,” but there’s nothing offensive about the audio, so if you’re interested in ReignBot’s reporting, just listen to it). The good news in all this is, “once this [ReignBot’s massively viewed report] goes up alongside other videos covering the same topic, Momo is most likely to be so riddled with fakes and copycats that it’ll completely lose its appeal.”
  • As for Minecraft: The Momo phenomenon showed up in the world of Minecraft in the form of a mod, reports gaming and pop culture news site ComicBook.com. The mod creates an avatar or character that sort of looks like the creepy “Momo” bird-girl and “chases down other Minecraft players. ComicBook.com adds that, in a statement made to Fox News, “the team at Microsoft called the latest mod ‘sick’,” said that it’s “taking action to restrict access to the mod,” and wrote, “This content, which was independently developed by a third party, does not align with our values and is not part of the official Minecraft game.”
  • Viral not only negative, of course: Remember the “ice bucket challenge” of 2014? Also truly viral (though probably more U.S.-based), it was a campaign, not a scare. It raised more than $100 million for medical research and probably went viral because infectiously fun, for a good cause; and famous people like Bill Gates and Barack Obama did it, helping to increase the campaign’s momentum.
  • Media literacy tools: “A Parent’s Guide to Media Literacy” from the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE); for kids who want to learn how to check the credibility of “news” stories they encounter, Checkology.org provides free instruction from the Washington, D.C.-based News Literacy Project to students and educators all over the world; Poynter Institute’s MediaWise is for teens to work with the Institute’s journalists to “sort out fact and fiction on the internet and social media”; and here’s KnowYourMeme.com on the Momo image.

For media literacy perspective on this from NAMLE (the National Association for Media Literacy Education) click to my blog; for more on “Blue Whale,” you’ll find multiple perspectives here.

Youth advocate; blogger, NetFamilyNews.org; founder, The Net Safety Collaborative