The True Villain of the "Momo Challenge"

Scare-mongering and a lack of critical thinking contribute to internet hoaxes.

Posted Mar 15, 2019

I have to be honest—while many concerned individuals sighed in relief, I laughed when the "Momo Challenge" hoax began to unravel. I’m not sure if it was intentionally engineered or otherwise, by one or a few; or simply gathered steam through widespread panic. However, I do know that it did a brilliant job in exemplifying why we need critical thinking.

For those not entirely clear on the Momo Challenge, it can refer to a: game involving the texting of a WhatsApp profile or other forms of social media, which sends back disturbing picture messages aimed at persuading readers to self-harm or worse; or to the unsolicited messaging of children through hi-jacking kid-appropriate videos on YouTube, via the Momo picture messages. Apparently, the game had already been linked with approximately 130 suicides in Russia, suspiciously consistent with another internet hoax (see below). Of course, parents and those responsible for children everywhere were in an uproar over it. How could such a thing exist? The twist of the story was that it didn’t.

Reactions to the challenge online were emotionally-driven. No one thought about what they were posting; there were even ‘influencers’ and ‘celebrities’ urging common folk to contact YouTube and various other online platforms to better police their media. Parents, individuals responsible for children and those who have nothing to do with children posted based on everything from fear to value-signaling – everything except critical thinking. Much of this had to do with people’s first impressions because it sure didn’t have anything to do with research. Your gut will always give you its opinion, but it’s up to your reflective judgment as to whether that opinion has a basis in evidence. Your ‘gut’ is that impression. So, let’s examine my gut-level, first impression of the uproar over the Momo Challenge; I thought two things: (1) that creepy picture has been around a while; and (2) I wouldn’t be surprised!

It’s been around a while.

As I’ve since learned, that ‘creepy picture’ is actually a sculpture created by Keisuke Aisawa in 2016. Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a bit of a horror aficionado, so maybe I’m in a unique cohort that would recognize ‘Momo’ from past creepypasta-associated links, stories, videos, etc. For those of you not familiar with creepypasta, think amateur fiction meets those chain letter short stories we used to get emailed to us back in the 90s. The point is that Momo (the sculpture) and her story (i.e. persuading vulnerable people into self-harming) had been doing the rounds online for a while now at this stage, and is far from unique (e.g. Blue Whale, a.k.a. the Russian Suicide Game). So, based on this impression, if this Momo Challenge was coercing children into self-harming, then why is it only coming to the public eye now?

I wouldn’t be surprised.

Children are impressionable – sure. But, are they so impressionable that they could be coerced into something like this? Well, we’ve all heard horror stories of children consuming bleach and other substances from under the sink. So, it’s plausible out of ignorance; but, even if they’ve been taught not to, that’s still not a guarantee – look at what teens (and some adults) were doing with detergent pods a few years back (which notably, also started as a hoax and, subsequently, became something with which people actually engaged… ‘ironically’). Mix ignorance and a lack of parental guidance and the Momo story seemed scarily plausible and, sadly, wouldn’t have surprised me.

What did surprise me…

After my first impressions, I looked it up. Though it wouldn’t have surprised me, none of it seemed legitimate – just a bunch of horror stories that we’d heard before, mixed together; a slew of ‘various versions’ of it; no clear cut examples; vague descriptions here and there; and no evidence of suicides and self-inflicted injuries. But, what did surprise me was the extent of how it took off and, more so, why parents didn’t look into the credibility of this report sooner. Even when parents did look it up, they still fell prey to the hoax. For example, some parents reported their children getting upset over all the talk of ‘Momo’ and, upon searching for it online, got caught up in the hysteria. They found the scare-mongering and that seemed to drown out the need for any actual evidence. Again, these reactions were in large part emotionally-driven. Regular readers of this blog will know that one of the most important rules for critical thinking is to leave our emotions out of it; a perspective consistent with a large body of research on the negative impact of emotion on decision-making (e.g. Kahneman and Frederick, 2002; Slovic et al., 2002; Strack, Martin, and Schwarz, 1988).

I laughed at the report… not because our children were being duped, rather because it was the adults! How will we expect our children and/or students to think critically if we’re not doing it ourselves? One of the best headlines I saw that addresses this story comes from the Irish Times: ‘Momo challenge’ hoax badly exposes media, police, and schools, with the sub-heading more poignantly stating that “Adults need to do better when it comes to assessing threats, real and imagined”. The language here is both interesting and important. Notice the use of the words ‘assessing’ and ‘exposes’ – they imply an important point: The lack of critical assessment ability of parents, teachers, media – adults everywhere – exposed. Imagine all the unnecessary fear and worry caused over absolutely nothing.

What isn’t funny is the number of parents who decided on awkwardly explaining self-harm and suicide to their much-too-young children. I couldn’t imagine even attempting to discuss that with a six-year-old and having them try to assimilate such concepts. That shouldn’t have to happen; but with that, it is crucial to note that it didn’t have to happen. Some will want to blame all of this – the fear and the worry, and everything else associated with Momo, on a specific individual or group. But there is no discernible villain here. Only the scare-mongering can really be blamed – well, that coupled with a lack of critical thinking. 

References

Kahneman, D. & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin, & D. Kahneman (Eds.), Heuristics and biases: The psychology of intuitive judgment, 49–81. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Slovic, P., Finucane, M., Peters, E., & MacGregor, D. G. (2002). Rational actors or rational fools: Implications of the affect heuristic for behavioral economics. The Journal of Socio-Economics, 31, 4, 329–342.

Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Schwarz, N. (1988). Priming and communication: Social determinants of information use in judgments of life satisfaction. European Journal of Social Psychology, 18, 5, 429–442.