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Momo challenge shows how even experts are falling for digital hoaxes

“An evil suicide game” was how one newspaper described the “Momo challenge”, a so-called game that supposedly involved children receiving a series of threatening and increasingly dangerous instructions from an anonymous contact on their smartphone. Such sensationalist reporting risked whipping up a frenzied panic, and it soon became apparent there was little evidence the game was real, with one children’s organisation saying it had received more enquiries from the press than from parents.

It’s easy to see why parents would be worried by reports of this purported phenomena, which are accompanied by a particularly creepy image of a doll reminiscent of something from a Japanese horror film. But the Momo challenge is simply the latest digital hoax, an urban legend able to develop and gain momentum because of the sharing of videos, articles and warnings online.

The intention of most people issuing these warnings is usually well-meaning. But the failure of people to identify the hoax, even by those who should have expert insight into whether children really are in danger, helps to create a problem where none really existed. And it’s likely to be worried parents that are harmed as a result rather than their more digital savvy children.

Reports of suicides linked to the Momo challenge have appeared around the world since July 2018, but without solid evidence that any of the deaths recorded were actually caused by the game. Attention on the story has grown, and recently took off in the British press after a mother posted a warning about it on her local Facebook group. She’d not seen any actual evidence of the game but had researched it after her son heard rumours about it at school and watched videos about it online.

It wasn’t just the media and parents that were sucked in, however. Children’s charities have criticised schools for warning parents about the challenge, and an MP raised the issue in parliament after being contacted by worried parents. Even the police were not immune from getting swept up in the panic, with several forces issuing dire warnings about Momo.

The irony is that there never was any proof of Momo. But now, partly as a result of the media attention, Momo has shifted from its supposed existence in threatening WhatsApp messages into a widely visible meme across YouTube and other online sources. And enough detail is available to equip those so inclined to use Momo as a method of cyberbullying.

Even as the media coverage shifted to articles condemning the Momo challenge as fake news and criticising the surrounding frenzy, reports still tended to include the image of the bulging-eyed female, perpetuating the clickbait cycle. This “visual extra” intensifies public awareness and ensures that the story registers in the collective imagination. In terms of the potential for harm, it has almost become irrelevant whether Momo was originally genuine or a hoax.

Heard this one before?

If the Momo challenge sounds familiar it’s because it’s very similar to the Blue Whale game that went viral in 2017, with headlines claiming that that had also led to the death of more than 130 teenagers. As with Momo, there was little verified information to prove these claims.

And yet the story was again able to draw in those who should have greeted it more sceptically. Much of the subsequent academic analysis of the Blue Whale game tended to uncritically accept the existence of the challenge and its purported link to suicides. There has been little attempt to understand how digital hoaxes are perpetuated and validated through the process of online warnings.

Even researchers who have analysed the presence of the Blue Whale game on social media have drawn inferences about it being “a deadly online craze” and “taking the world by storm” – claims that are not supported by the research. The most critical analysis of the Blue Whale game and how it proliferated in the news media came from journalists, not academics.

We all need to get better at spotting fake news. Panuwat Phimpha/Shutterstock

With all the online risks to children highlighted in the media, parents now have added responsibilities and expectations to protect their children than previous generations. It is difficult enough to navigate through the cacophony of drama to verify facts in an age of fake news. And this is made even harder when misinformation comes from supposedly expert and reputable sources.

But ultimately, digital hoaxes have as much if not more chance of causing emotional harm to parents or carers who may not have the same appreciation of internet culture as their children do. As the author Don Tapscott argues in his book Grown up Digital, the so-called “net generation” are often good at scrutinising information they encounter online, exposing hoaxes quickly, and making short work of false pretences.

Of course this applies more to older children and teenagers. But the pressure and desire to protect children from the horrors of the internet could inadvertently cause parents to engage with, or expose their children to, distressing content they would not have otherwise.

Digital hoaxes highlight the need for everyone to think more critically about online information. Often the hype can distract us from the real online issues affecting children and young people and the need for greater advice and support for suicide prevention in general.

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