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Dealing with the Momo Challenge viral hoax

A number of news reports and social media posts about the “Momo Challenge” created mass hysteria on the third week of February 2019.

While this challenge has been circulating around various online platforms for quite some time, the recent influx of legitimate reports and posts about it poses more risk even after it was debunked as a viral hoax. As of this writing, people, mostly scared parents, continue to spread warnings about it, while ironically passing on even more fear by sharing the disturbing Momo image of a disfigured being with dark hair and bulging eyes, which is apparently an image snatched from a Japanese creation for a ghost-themed exhibition in Tokyo, in their posts.

At this point, the issue is beyond the phenomenon itself. The responsibility of both media outlets and netizens to check the validity of such viral content is put on the spotlight.

Founded more on clickbait headlines than well-researched facts, the CNN recently reported the Momo topic as a top new trending search term on Google for the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK. The Guardian described it as “the most talked about viral scare story of the year so far.” The recent coverage began with a parent’s warning post in social media, which readily went viral and was eventually picked up by mainstream news – giving it prominent coverage worldwide. Locally, Philippine news sites also started propagating fear on how the challenge induced children into a series of dangerous tasks, self-harm, and suicide. In an instant, fears of Momo popped up in social media and links to sensationalized news attracted hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook within a 24-hour period. The panic around cyberspace continued for a couple of days even after the case was finally reported as “fake news.”

the guardian graphic on momo challenge
The Guardian graphic based on Google Trends from Feb. 17 to 25, 2019.

The nature of this viral topic is worth analyzing. From challenges meant to raise awareness or money for charitable causes to those that simply encourage others to take part in anywhere from fun and goofy behavior to inherently dangerous activities, the proliferation of viral challenges in recent years makes the overhyped Momo case more convincing to the public. Add this to the older scaremongering tactics of chain letters, the horror-taboo excitement offered by genre movies and TV series, the dramatic and shocking headlines luring more clicks, and the alleged Momo appearances in children’s games and kid-friendly shows and toy reviews, and you have a potentially trendy material ready to spread across the globe.

Given the ensuing media hysteria, it is important to get to the bottom of what the public should really know about this kind of viral scare. It caught the attention of the Department of Education (DepEd), which readily released a public warning to parents to be more mindful and attentive to their children’s digital exposure, just a few days after it went viral. The Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT) also said that their office is already investigating the case. The police even issued a warning after some children allegedly took part in the challenge. By the time the challenge was deemed a malicious hoax, Rappler reported about “the Momo challenge effigy burned by cops and students amid suicide scares.”

With this viral phenomenon now being so widespread despite being a bogus case, Momo-related posts and suicide imagery lingering around cyberspace still present a continuing threat. It still carries that dangerous potential to torment vulnerable youngsters and their parents. With concerned members of the public rushing to share posts about the suicide risk related to it, it further piques the curiosity of the challenge’s potential victims – especially with the sight of the creepy Momo image persisting online.

Prior articles, even the poorly researched and ineptly written ones, continue to thrive online that some emotionally unstable people may still find themselves engaged in the idea of harming themselves and/or others. Despite having no verified reports from authorities and no definitive links about the actual victims of the so-called challenge, some families may still become victims of the alarming effects of the subject, like how certain parents capture on photos and videos the reactions of their paranoid children still believing the existence of Momo. Others may also capitalize on it for cyberbullying purposes.

Child safety campaigners, childcare professionals, and online safety experts express the best actions to take in this now viral ghost story of recent history. Instead of sharing links perpetuating and mythologizing it, such viral danger should be a reminder for people to be more responsible and discerning with online content presented to them, just like with how they deal with regular fake news. Staying safe online should be a priority. Openness and transparency in children’s gadget use and online activities are a must. Setting up restrictions on friends and access to user-generated content should be implemented. When the digital realm appears to severely bother, scare, disturb, or threaten the young and the old, dwelling on unfounded hysteria is not the solution, as propagating the phenomenon just adds fuel to the fire.

The DepEd expressed to the public the importance of developing media and information literacy skills to cultivate critical thinking and prioritize information authenticity, as well as enable digital users of all ages to discern online issues and threats. Both children and adults should practice responsible online behavior. Even media outlets should ensure they always check their sources and evidence trails, as they are supposed to be socially and morally responsible in their service to the public.


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Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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