COMMENTARY: Our susceptibility to online hoaxes is undermining the cause of online safety
Have you heard about the Como challenge?
Apparently, images of singer Perry Como are popping up in popular online videos and urging young people to commit regicide. There are no documented instances of the Como challenge, no screenshots or videos to share with you, and it’s almost certain that I just made it up. But one can never be too careful, right?
Of course, it is possible to be too careful. It would be absurd and counterproductive to mobilize schools, law enforcement, and the media to sound the alarm about a likely non-existent threat, especially given the abundance of actual online dangers we can and should be warning young people about.
Yet that’s pretty much what happened in response to a viral online hoax known as the Momo challenge. Right across North America, police, schools, and media outlets were fueling a panic about a story that wasn’t real.
It must all seem especially puzzling to Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso, who created a sculpture called “Mother Bird” back in 2016. It’s unclear exactly how the sculpture’s creepy face came to be used in this hoax, but it’s everywhere now. “Mother Bird” became “Momo” somewhere along the line, and the legend of the Momo challenge was born. Versions have varied slightly, but the basic parameters of the story involve images of the creepy face showing up in videos, urging kids to engage in escalating acts of self-harm up to and including suicide.
This hoax has been around since at least last year and has shown up in Argentina, Australia, India, and Europe. Some versions of the story link the Momo challenge to the messaging app WhatsApp, others to various online video games, and, most recently, Youtube. Yet in all of this global panic, there have been no confirmed examples of this. If these videos are showing up all over the place, why are there no snippets or screenshots that anyone can point to?
It’s unclear what sparked the latest Momo panic, but social media appears to have played a large role. Certainly, the warning from Kim Kardashian to her 129 million Instagram followers about the Momo challenge made people take notice.
Harvard University’s Nieman Lab has pieced together a fascinating overview of how the story spread across the United States, and how quickly so many trusted agencies — media outlets, law enforcement, schools, and even fire departments — were to accept the validity of the story. The coverage quickly snowballed, too. Police warnings prompt media reports which prompt school warnings which prompt more media reports and so on. Social media allows for the warnings and stories in one community to quickly get noticed elsewhere and the cycle thus repeats itself.
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Mind you, it doesn’t appear as though anyone here was intentionally and knowingly spreading a false story. It’s understandable that we would have some urgency in sharing information with parents that could help them keep their kids safe. However, we shouldn’t pretend that it’s no big deal if that information turns out to be false.
For one thing, as some groups have warned, there’s a need for caution when it comes to covering the issue of suicide. Mass hysteria around this kind of a hoax could have some troubling unintended consequences.
Furthermore, the cause of online safety is ultimately harmed. Being able to apply some critical thinking in discerning what’s real and what’s not on the internet is a crucial skill that young people need to be equipped with. If the grown-ups are going to be easily sucked in by online hoaxes, then who will teach children how not to be?
The hysteria around the Momo challenge makes it harder for legitimate online threats to get the attention they deserve. Moreover, too much of the boy-who-cried-wolf response to viral hoaxes could lead to people becoming cynical about the coverage around actual online threats.
At least now we have the opportunity to reflect on how this story got so out of hand and how in the future we can avoid the spread of hoaxes and misinformation and avoid succumbing to a moral panic. Ignoring this lesson entails a risk of its own.
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