"It's Sickening" blares a headline at CBS's Baltimore affiliate about an alleged threat to children who play games online, watch cartoon videos, or use social media.
The headline is accurate that something is sickening here, but it's the decision to have run this embarrassing, fact-challenged story in the first place. And sadly, CBS Baltimore is hardly the only one.
Here's the "scoop": A sinister game called "The Momo Challenge" exists online. It involves a creepy woman's face popping up when children are watching cartoons on YouTube or playing video games or just messaging each other. Momo orders these children, as part of this game, to do harmful things to themselves, up to and including suicide.
The most important thing to understand about "The Momo Challenge" is that it doesn't exist. It's bullshit. It's nonsense. And it should be obvious to even the most casual user of online technology. Here's a sentence from that CBS report that should hopefully make clear what a hoax all this is (bold text mine):
Momo uses a picture of a woman with bulging eyes and jet black hair and can target kids through Peppa Pig or Fortnite when parents aren't around.
So this viral intrusion that can infect not just multiple styles of communication but also completely different and unrelated types of software can also determine whether parents are around? Huge, if true!
Momo must be really skilled, because this scare story has bounced around from media outlet to media outlet, and yet not a single adult has actually seen Momo pop up and offer one of these dangerous challenges. This "report" by Kelsey Kushner chooses the weaselly "Police are warning" route, followed by quotes from adults who find it "sickening" that somebody would target kids this way, concluding with tips on how to protect your kids from the threat of Momo: Monitor your kids constantly! "You have to get in their phones, get in their apps," one parent says.
And yet there's not one piece of evidence that any of this happening. There's a brief clip of a video that shows the image of "Momo," which is actually a sculpture of a harpy by a Japanese special effects company. I was able to track this nonsense back to a story by U.K. tabloid Daily Star, which features a mom claiming "Momo" told her 5-year-old daughter to cut off her hair. This, apparently, is the most logical explanation to Mom as to why a 5-year-old girl would do something so silly as cut her own hair, something small children have been doing since scissors were invented (if not before).
The Daily Star story does have a video clip of this Momo face with a child's sing-song voice threatening that Momo is going to kill you. But it's just completely contextless. The clip doesn't indicate that this video popped up as some sort of insert into social media viewing or during a cartoon. In the clip, Momo doesn't even order the viewer to do anything.
Similarly, this mother in Wichita, Kansas, blames Momo for her young son's outbursts. Again, there's a brief clip of some Momo threats in some video, but it still does not connect to anything.
Yet there's not a single sentence even in any of these reports in which anybody questions whether the Momo Challenge is even real. The CBS Baltimore piece claims Momo has been "reportedly linked to suicides in other countries" without any explanation.
Say what you will about Snopes' ability to accurately fact-check politicians, but they remain a great clearinghouse for takedowns of viral "urban legend" scares. There's actually little to no evidence that the suicides referenced are actually linked to the Momo Challenge, Snopes explains. In one case in Argentina, police actually suspect it was a relationship with another person that led to a teen's suicide, not an online challenge.
There was a recent story revealing that some suicide tips had been nastily spliced into child videos on YouTube, and in that case, adults have actually seen the videos and reported them. It's also obvious that people made these videos and posted them online for kids to find. This is unconnected to the Momo Challenge.
The Momo Challenge coverage is a ghost story disguised as news. It's presented as though evil hackers are able to put it in front of children when parents aren't looking. That's not how any of this works, and it's just remarkably irresponsible for media outlets to sell a fearful story without an ounce of skepticism.
But I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Just a couple of weeks ago, media outlets across the country "warned" parents about an alleged social media "challenge" telling children to run away from home and hide for 48 hours without telling anybody. This challenge does not exist. It was debunked by Snopes when reports first emerged in 2015. Again, this was all based on an incident in another country (France) that, on further inspection, had nothing to do with any sort of online "challenge."
So why are media outlets and cops warning parents about a trend that doesn't actually exist? This story from NBC News (the main media outlet—not some local affiliate) says police departments haven't actually had any cases, but want to warn folks because they themselves were contacted by the media. This is a great example of media people conjuring fake news.
If you type "48 Hour Challenge" into Google News, you'll get numerous pieces in this vein. There are plenty of "Momo Challenge" stories, too, but at least in this case, it looks like people are waking up to the obvious fakeness of it.