AP NEWS

Momo challenge inspired false panic among media organizations

March 11, 2019

Momo, a sculpture of a birdlike creature with bulging eyes and a thin hint of a smile, is the latest internet sensation to scare the daylights out of parents. The creepy mannequin supposedly exchanges messages via social media apps, telling children to harm themselves.

Yet the real problem with Momo and its so-called “challenge” is that it’s not real an example of actual fake news.

Local TV news outlets, especially in the Midwest, have reported widely about the “Momo challenge,” prompting school districts to issue warnings to students and their parents. But law enforcement agencies say they have yet to encounter or even receive a report about the web-based menace.

“We never filed any police report, as far as I know,” Charley Davidson, a spokesman for the police department in Wichita, Kansas, said in a telephone interview. “But I do think my daughters got some material sent home by the local school.”

KWCH-TV, the CBS-affiliate in Wichita, ran a Feb. 26 story, “Kansas parents concerned by Momo challenge,” with an interview from one local mother who said she was watching YouTube with her child when Momo “popped up.” The story quotes one parent who did “research” on the challenge to discover that Momo encourages children to swallow as many pills as possible.

Amid the panic after the report aired, the local school district was left to clean up the mess.

“We were kind of like, ‘Thanks, local TV!’” said Susan Arensman, a spokeswoman for Wichita Public Schools. “I have a friend who likes to share things on the internet that are not true. A quick Google search would tell you it’s wrong. But then there she was reposting a clip from the television station, a reputable site, and then what do you say?”

First reported last fall, the Momo challenge has metastasized on Facebook and other social networks, nurtured in large part by local TV station reports and echoing the Slender Man internet phenomenon that led two 12-year-old girls to stab their friend in Wisconsin in 2014.

Even NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” got into it this weekend: A spoof commercial for a fictional chicken restaurant featured a mascot that resembles Momo and frightens children and families.

Reports debunking Momo have run in Rolling Stone magazine and The Washington Post, and on the ReignBot channel on YouTube, among other outlets.

No deaths have been linked to the Momo challenge, whose genesis as reported by Rolling Stone may have been a tweet aiming to scare people.

Internet safety experts are divided on how to best address occurrences like Momo and Slender Man, saying authorities have to be careful not to end up perpetuating the scourge they seek to end.

“The most effective steps here are ones that encourage youth, parents and school personnel to reinforce the proper guidelines for youth and controlled internet use, correct oversight by parents and responsible adults teaching youth to monitor their internet use just as they already have learned to do,” Dale Emma, executive director of Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, said in an email.

Meanwhile, Momo officially is dead, even though it was never “alive” to begin with. The Japanese sculptor who created the bug-eyed bird doll for a horror film project has revealed that the creature decomposed long ago. And YouTube has said it no longer will monetize any videos related to Momo.