Momo Challenge – 2019 Media Frenzy

A Safeguarding Hub – 12-minute briefing.

On 24th February the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) issued a Northern Ireland-wide alert, warning parents of the potential dangers to their children from an online challenge ‘game’ that promotes and encourages children to self-harm and potentially commit suicide. The Momo Challenge had well and truly resurfaced, this time allegedly lurking behind in-game adverts and pop-ups hidden between online videos.

Why did Momo hit the news and social media again?

Momo has been around for several years but came to real prominence for a brief few weeks last summer, when it was reported that Momo Challenge was being circulated via a message on WhatsApp. The exact source of Momo’s 2019 resurgence isn’t entirely clear. Like most malicious online challenge games, origins are usually clouded in mystery. Those who create and spread malevolence like to hide in the shadows, content to remain anonymous. Therefore, it is never easy identifying sources and confirming whether incidents are credible. On this occasion it was made even more difficult by the media frenzy that followed. The web and social media were simply awash with the rehashing of the same old articles and a substantial amount of fake news.

Only PSNI will know why they put the alert out, but there is a possibility that it originated from a report that a west-Belfast mother had witnessed her 7-year-old daughter viewing Momo, whilst playing the Roblox based game ‘Fashion Famous’ on an iPad. The Momo image had apparently been imbedded into an in-game advertisement. The news reports that followed carried headlines like “the game Momo that encourages young children to kill themselves has spread to Northern Ireland”. In my view a rather irresponsible headline, giving the public the impression that some sort of virus was causing desolation to children all across NI, when in fact the little girl was online, and this could have happened anywhere in the world. Maybe the journalists involved thought that it was just the iPads and Android devices in Northern Ireland that were somehow ‘infected’!

Momo was now out there in the public domain and our old friend social media took over, rapidly spreading news of the Momo invasion across Northern Ireland. Inevitably this prompted the media to report numerous ‘sightings’, with many parents coming forward claiming their children had been targeted. Rather predictably and conveniently most outlets reported that these parents “wished to remain anonymous’. Therefore, we have no idea whether these incidents were true, or just thrown in for the sake of a good story.

In just a couple of days the news articles had begun to give the impression that the danger posed to the children of NI was of epic proportion. At this point much of the blame was being laid at the door of YouTube, with many of the reported sightings coming from adverts between videos or embedded in videos aimed at children. This was a flashback to the issues YouTube faced in 2017, which became known as ‘Elsagate’, after the Frozen character Elsa. This involved a spate of incidents where hugely popular children’s shows were doctored with violent, sexual or other adult themes, which were inserted into the characterisation. Back then Peppa Pig was a particular target and most of the Momo incidents appeared to target our porky friend this time around.

Momo is actually all over YouTube, but the majority of Momo videos are informative, describing the challenge, the dangers and issuing warnings. However, it doesn’t take much to edit a video and insert something horrible into the content. With Momo that is particularly easy to do, mainly because whoever invented the concept, had a moment of pure genius and utilised a hideous piece of artwork as the main scare factor. It seems we are all fascinated with the image of ‘Mother Bird’, to give the sculpture it’s correct name.

Back to Northern Ireland, and if the press were to be believed, this part of the UK was now ‘in the grip of an epidemic’, soon to spread across the Irish Sea. Suddenly, there were reports popping up all over the UK. However, Momo wasn’t just unique to the UK, it was already rife across many parts of the world, particularly the US where Momo fever had also gripped the nation. This was mainly down to Kim Kardashian, who had asked her 129 million Instagram followers to pressure YouTube into taking down the infected harmful videos. Let’s face it, if you want to create a major scare based on little evidence, then an audience of 129 million is a fabulous place to start.

Before long the press was reporting that Momo had been linked to suicides “across Europe and around the world”. Many of the news articles referred to the circulation last year, linking the challenge to the suicide of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina. Rather like the anonymous parents, many of these other deaths were ‘unconfirmed’ and it was clear the news media had done very little to check their facts. By this stage several police forces had issued alerts and Momo was given further exposure on the TV show ‘This Morning’.

Whilst the premise of Momo is obviously quite scary and alarming for parents, one of the more amusing stories to come out of the scare, involved a lady who had simply had enough of all the newspaper scaremongering. Maria Dunn, decided to create the #MomoaChallenge, which in place of featuring the image of ‘Mother Bird’, instead contained the rippling muscled image of film star Jason Momoa, who plays the superhero Aquaman. Maria said “I am officially launching my campaign to temper the stream of photos featuring #Momo with images of the far less terrifying and far more delightful Jason #Momoa. She explained that she was sick with seeing the Momo image on every other post on Facebook and decided to do something different.

By the end of that first week, many UK schools had begun to send out their weekly newsletters, warning parents of the potential dangers. It was at this point I found myself having a conversation with my young son who asked me to give him the full rundown on the “chicken girl”, who had been talked about at his infant school. The ’Momo Effect’ even impacted on this website. Our weekly visitors to the site rose from around 1,100 to 9000, the majority visiting the article I wrote last year, Momo – real or fake? However, not long after the first stories appeared in the media, the Momo bubble began to burst.

Fake News

A few days in, many safeguarding charities announced that they believed Momo to be a hoax. These organisations included the NSPCC, the Samaritans and the UK Safer Internet Centre. The same tabloids that had initially spread the news of Momo, now reported that the experts were saying Momo was fake news and there were no credible reports of children having been influenced to harm themselves. Wouldn’t it have been nice if they had tried some investigative journalism in the first place and approached the charities for their views from the outset! YouTube also refuted reports that Momo was present on its site, although this was an audacious claim, given that 300 hours of video is posted on the platform every minute.

By now most news outlets had grabbed hold of the hoax theory. BBC Northern Ireland were accused of quietly ‘re-writing’ their original facts, when they ran a story suggesting that the newspapers were to blame for the scare. In fact, the BBC had also run similar stories and the newspapers fought back, accusing the BBC article of being “substantially rewritten”. Within seven days all media outlets had stopped publishing stories about Momo, other than a few articles which concentrated on how the “hoax” had managed to gain such prominence.

 My view

The reporting of Momo by most news outlets was nothing less than irresponsible. They took a minor story and embellished their articles around words such as “wished to remain anonymous”, “numerous incidents” and “unconfirmed suicides”. These unverified news stories created a mini moral panic, playing on the fears of parents, already anxious about the threat the internet poses to their children. Where they did carry an example, they relied on the tragic death of 12-year old Ingeniero Maschwitz whose suicide in Argentina led to the 2018 Momo scare. At the time Ingeniero’s suicide was linked to the challenge game by the Argentine authorities and then widely reported by the media. However, nearly a year on I have tried to find whether this link was ever confirmed by the authorities. I cannot find any further information from Argentine that suggests that Momo was contributory factor in the child’s death.

As a result of the 2018 Momo scare, many law enforcement agencies around the world issued warnings. Subsequently most have reported little impact and there does not appear to have been any suicides or significant harm caused. This illustrates the dilemma that law enforcements agencies face. Do they issue an alert based on little information and risk raising anxiety amongst parents, or do they stay quiet and hope that it is nothing more than a rumour? This is the same predicament that many head teachers also faced across the UK. Whilst it has been recognised in the Supreme Court that police generally do not owe a duty of care to individual members of the public, you could imagine the outcry if the police did not take the opportunity to alert the public and a child was harmed as a result of Momo. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

There were of course some news articles that were sourced and this provides enough reason to warn the public. However, because of the number of news stories being published, it became the chicken and egg scenario. What came first, the real Momo challenge, or those jumping on the Momo bandwagon and just using the internet to frighten people?

One such story involved a 5-year old girl from Cheltenham, who cut off clumps of her hair after she had apparently been told to do so by Momo. This had occurred whilst the child was watching a Peppa Pig video. Momo also apparently told the girl that she “best keep one eye open when you’re sleeping”. I have to say the reporting of this incident left a lot to be desired and I don’t quite understand why they felt the needed to display pictures of the child across the paper and online. However, the impact on any child of this age is going to be pretty traumatic, regardless of whether it was sent as part of an organised challenge game, or as is more likely in this case, by some idiot on the internet hijacking YouTube and trying to scare people.

So, is Momo real or just fake news?Well, my view hasn’t changed since writing the articleMomo – real or fake?’ last year. Momo as a concept, is an urban legend, spread by scaremongering rumour across social media platforms. However, in my view that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real or harmless. On the contrary it provides an excuse and mechanism for cyberbullies and mischief-makers to prosper in isolation. Whilst I personally believe that the idea of it as organised online challenge is hugely exaggerated, it is obvious to me that the notion of the ‘game’ is adopted by those people who use the concept to intimidate, threaten, scare and hurt those that are vulnerable. Therefore, for many people it is real, and it doesn’t really matter too much if there is some underlying organisation behind the challenge, or whether it is just a sad solo individual using it to cause mischief.

My message is the same as 2018. As safeguarding professionals, we must treat these type of harmful games as potential threats to the vulnerable, whether they turn out to be an organised viral phenomenon, or isolated incidents by those jumping on a bandwagon. The message we should be telling parents is that they should remain vigilant, ensure that they are internet/social media savvy and most importantly, regularly speak to their children about what they are doing online.

Thanks for reading.

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