Recent coverage of the Momo challenge is ‘probably some of the most irresponsible journalism in this country for ages,’ according to Jim Waterson of The Guardian. For the past week, an internet hoax has been causing havoc and anxiety for the UK’s children. But not because they were targeted by it, and not because they shared it between one another.

Instead, it was their parents and the authorities who believed it was real and warned their children. Now teachers are having to calm their students by informing them that it wasn’t real; that they had been caught out by a trick. How did we get here?

This monstrosity is Momo’s avatar. Momo, according to garbled theories spread across social media, is a character which pops up in children’s videos and mobile apps and encourages them to harm themselves or their families. The image is of a sculpture by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa, taken at a Tokyo gallery.

The photo of his impressively unsettling work has taken on a life of its own. Its first appearance of note was in a YouTube video called ‘Exploring the Momo Situation‘, which proceeded to go viral. The video discusses young people in Mexico receiving provocative messages from accounts using the picture. Advertisements for the ‘Momo Challenge’ appeared, with a phone number you should message to participate.

This was probably the source of the proceeding panic. But the point of the ads was likely an opportunistic attempt to gather people’s phone numbers, which could then be sold, using the viral picture to pique people’s interest. The use of the image to scare people, as in Mexico, may have been unconnected. But the more the story was reported, the more online pranksters made scary videos involving the face and the more people created online accounts using the avatar in order to scare people.

This is the truth in the story. There are people on the internet who want to steal your information or money. Others seek to scare you for their own enjoyment. What’s not true is the idea that there was ever some kind of centrally-controlled ‘Momo Game’ or ‘Momo Challenge’. But that didn’t stop newspapers saying there was.

Last month The Herald reported a woman who said an account using the image had told her son to put a knife to his throat. The paper described Momo like this:

The challenge encourages children to hurt themselves after they have been invited to take part by an anonymous controller. The game is illustrated by a terrifying bug-eyed female face and shares violent images and threatens its users. It is thought that instances of the game have been reported in Colombia, Australia, Mexico and England and has been linked to at least two deaths.’

Momo was never linked to any deaths. The Herald got this idea from a report from Buenos Aires last year, of a young girl who took her own life. Police had found the Momo image on her phone but later ruled out that it had anything to do with her death. But The Herald is a respected newspaper, so as a result, all subsequent reports included the dubious idea that a viral game from Latin America was killing children across the globe.

Eager to outdo each other, media outlets ramped up the rhetoric. Under the headline ‘What is the Momo challenge? Sick WhatsApp ‘suicide’ game targeting young kids‘, The Mirror wrote:

The terrifying Momo Challenge has made its way to the UK and parents are being warned to be extra vigilant as hackers are reportedly targeting Peppa Pig, Fortnite and YouTube Kids. The dangerous phenomenon has already been linked with the suicide of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina and at least 130 teen deaths across Russia.

Reports like this from reputable newspapers – though without sense (Hacking into Fortnite? To put a picture there?!) – concerned parents and teachers who didn’t know better. Schools sent out letters about the Momo Challenge ‘currently sweeping online media’.

Next in the game of Chinese whispers were local police forces, who shared their own tech-illiterate messages on their social media pages. Just like that, a feedback loop began: newspapers release sensationalist reports, adults become worried, schools send letters and police seek to keep-up by providing information themselves, giving newspapers more to write about.

Caught up in this were thousands of oblivious children. For them, the first they heard of Momo was from their anxious parents. The idea of this threatening, malevolent force scared them, especially as it came from their parents – the people they trusted most in the world. So did the letters which schools gave out. Their schools only ever gave out letters about serious and important things. 

The panicked reaction to the Momo phenomenon was caused by increased suspicion of what children are viewing online. A couple of years ago, a writer named James Bridle published an essay named ‘Something is wrong on the internet‘. It delved deep into the murky and disturbing world of the YouTube Kids app, where publishers create bizarre videosinvolving popular children’s characters to try and get picked up by the algorithm YouTube uses to suggest videos to viewers.

More worryingly, this algorithm is also abused by pranksters who make rip-off episodes of programmes like Peppa Pig. In one video, Peppa drinks a bottle of bleach. YouTube’s algorithm is effective at finding videos to the taste of those who enjoy Peppa Pig; it is less so at understanding the danger of showing a child their favourite character chugging back a bottle of cleaning fluid.

The nauseating revelation that parents were exposing their toddlers to such a hellscape whenever they gave them a tablet has caused people to be more vigilant with regards to new internet trends.

Adults have always worried about what the younger generation is doing. Think sex on TV in the 60s; heavy metal and LGBT-themes in the 70s and 80s; rap in the early 2000s; grime music recently. As before, legitimate concerns have turned into paranoia.

When children read letters about the mysterious game, they anxiously asked about self-harm and suicide. This awful monster and its shadowy controllers were going to infiltrate and ruin their lives – so said the letter from school.

But this was a fantasy. There was no monster. Instead, it was parents and schools who brought the fear thundering into their children’s lives. It was the media hysteria which gave pranksters the idea of making scary videos involving the creature – not the other way around.

By the time charities like Samaritans said they believed it was a hoax, Kim Kardashian had posted about the menace to her millions of followers. When this email goes out, there will still be parents all over the world who believe a secretive group of hackers are somehow inserting messages into mobile apps in which a face tells their children to harm themselves. The moral panic is rolling on as you read.

The artist Keisuke Aisawa has tried to reassure people in his own way, by revealing that he’d thrown the model away a while ago after it had begun to rot.

Children will feel confused about their parents’ behaviour. Fixing the situation gives us an opportunity to teach them an important lesson: Often, seemingly infallible figures of authority get things wrong. Nothing they say should be taken as gospel; they’re just as prone to hysteria and gullibility as anyone else. When someone tells you to fear something new, or that something or someone is out to harm you, one should always ask: Are you sure that’s true?

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