The internet has brought a wide range of strange challenges and games, from teenagers eating detergent pods to the cinnamon challenge. Prior to that, jump scare YouTube videos or even violent video games were the things parents worried about. That was until the Momo challenge appeared in 2018. What was this challenge about, where did it come from and was it really a hoax? Here’s everything you need to know about the Momo challenge story.
The Momo challenge was an online challenge that started getting recognition in 2018. Momo allegedly targeted young children by encouraging them to text a number on WhatsApp, which then sent them instructions to complete a series of strange and dangerous tasks from watching a horror movie to engaging in self-harm and committing suicide.
Although reports of the Momo challenge had been floating around the internet for a while, the trend truly picked up when it made the news after a Facebook post from the Police Service of Northern Island (PSNI) issued a public warning to parents urging them to be careful about their kids’ activity on WhatsApp. Around the same time, there had also been reports of trolls editing kid-friendly YouTube videos to include images of Momo, as well as instructions encouraging them to self-harm.
Once the social media challenge spread across Facebook and news outlets, the Momo challenge was classified as “a worldwide phenomenon” after an Indonesian newspaper reported that it had caused a 12-year-old girl to kill herself. In 2019, even Kim Kardashian had posted on her Instagram Story pleading for YouTube to remove alleged Momo videos.
The challenge claims to have existed in the US, the UK, Canada, Ireland, India, Pakistan, Luxembourg, Belgium, Iran, the Philippines, France, Indonesia, Brunei, Hong Kong, Spain, Portugal, Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Australia.
Unsurprisingly, the pictures used to depict Momo, while undeniably terrifying, had nothing to do with the Momo challenge itself. The bug-eyed doll with messy hair similar to The Ring’s frightening main character and skinny limbs that was associated with the challenge is in fact a sculpture made by Link Factory artist Keisuke Aisawa, a Japanese company that specialises in horror film props. The sculpture was even displayed at a show at a gallery in Ginza, Tokyo in August 2016.
According to Rolling Stone, with her bird-like claws, the statue may be inspired by the Japanese bird woman, or ‘ubume’, a wraith-like figure who is said to have died during childbirth. After photos of the sculpture were posted on Instagram, they started to gain traction on Reddit, particularly the subreddit r/creepy, where it collected thousands of upvotes and comments.
The actual origins of the Momo challenge remain unclear but it reportedly appeared in Spanish-speaking countries first, with Mexican authorities claiming that the trend stemmed from a Facebook group. Looking at Google Trends, however, the Momo challenge didn’t really pick up in English-speaking countries until YouTuber ReignBot made a video devoted to unpacking the phenomenon in July 2018.
According to the video, those who texted ‘Momo’s number’ were told to complete a series of dangerous or frightening tasks, starting with something innocent like watching a horror movie late at night and ending with a call for kids to self-harm or take their own lives. Failure to complete the tasks apparently would result in their personal information being leaked or threats of violence.
ReignBot’s video, which has since been removed from YouTube after the platform announced on Twitter that it would no longer allow videos featuring Momo to be monetised, debunked the challenge by pointing out the relatively harmless origins of Momo. Nonetheless, stories started circulating in the press about the dangers of the Momo challenge, quoting ‘internet safety experts’ urging parents to watch out for warning signs that their children were playing the game.
One report went as far as to suggest that a 12-year-old girl in Buenos Aires took her own life as a result of playing the Momo challenge. We now know that this report was poorly sourced and unconfirmed. A few years after, many have realised that the Momo challenge could have simply been a hoax.
The Momo challenge turned out to be a hoax—an internet urban legend about a nonexistent social media challenge that was spread on Facebook and media outlets. Although it was reported that children and adolescents were being enticed by a user named Momo to perform a series of dangerous tasks including violent attacks, self-harm and suicide, the number of actual complaints was relatively small and no law enforcement agency has confirmed that anyone was harmed as a direct result of it.
Concern and distress registered by children was primarily driven by media reports rather than as a result of Momo, which led many charities to view warnings against the made-up phenomenon as causing more harm than good by leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy that could encourage children to look up violent material online. In other words, misinformation and poor reporting were the actual creators of the Momo challenge.
Experts on mental health explained that such hysterical news coverage could potentially inspire imitators. For example, when two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin attempted to stab their best friend to death, they later claimed that they did so to appease the fictional internet boogeyman ‘Slender Man’. While the Momo challenge never existed, its wide coverage could have inspired children to harm themselves or others.
While the Momo challenge itself was proved to be a hoax, parents should remain vigilant of what their children get up to online. With websites like Best Gore and TheYNC, the risk of seeing disturbing content on the internet is all too real. The idea of a mysterious Momo communicating with kids via WhatsApp and urging them to kill themselves, however, is less plausible.
Ultimately, the internet can be a pretty dangerous place for kids, which is why parents have to be aware of what their children might see on there. Then again, life in general is pretty scary, so a fake Japanese bird lady might be a good place to start.
As 2020 continues to throw curveballs, at many points the expression ‘if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry’ has seemed apt. With this, we have seen a rise of political content on social media to help the general public make sense of major global crisis after major global crisis. Internet memes make a joke, a point, or a connection and can operate to affirm and shape today’s politics through participation by reappropriation. But are they actually helpful?
As the best part of any group chat, memes are fundamentally fun. However, when used within a political context they enable a new kind of participatory conversation which complicates the traditional political structure. Internet memes are defined as “units of popular culture that are circulated, imitated and transformed by Internet users, creating a shared cultural experience.” For young people, who do a great deal of their communicating online, memes have become a significant practice for political engagement. A far cry from the cat memes of 2010, 2020 sees the internet taking on politicians and the established elite through the medium of memes.
Humour is inherently critical and functions to challenge social norms dating all the way back to Ancient Greece. In a way, memes are a continuation of caricatures, which were popularised in the 1700s as a form of satire. Political memes create and spread satire, allowing them to actively question politics rather than passively consume through more traditional news sources. Logan Callen, creator of the Instagram account @quarantined_political_memes, which is well known for its political compass memes, told Screen Shot, “When I first started my page back in March, the amount of engagement on political pages was much lower than it is now. My page has grown a lot recently, especially among younger people. I attribute this growing interest in politics to the popularisation of politics on social media.”
With few socioeconomic barriers to the internet, access to political content has never been easier, arming the younger generation with a powerful tool. However, the meme’s biggest strengths, speed and lack of gatekeepers can also prove its biggest flaws.
At their crux, memes are supposed to be funny, whether that humour is light-hearted or macabre. However, at the intersection of politics and humour, there is a very fine line to be balanced. Bigoted hostility, harassment and dangerous propaganda are often overlooked as ‘just a joke’, as extremists hide behind irony to make their bigotry seem more palatable. A 2015 study by the Texas University found that individuals who were socially isolated and more likely to be characterised as ‘on the fringe’ have a greater chance at creating a successful meme, lending weight to the idea of memes being an effective tool for extremists.
“Social media giving everyone a voice for their opinions is a double-edged sword,” explains Callen. “While it allows for every opinion to be heard, it also grants the opportunity for ‘trolls’ to spread misinformation. I have seen this a lot while on the political side of Instagram. While most memes I have come across aren’t dangerous in spreading misinformation or propaganda, I have seen a few that almost tricked me, and would definitely trick younger people.”
Memes thrive on a lack of information, the faster you can understand the point the higher the chance of it going viral. Seemingly well-intentioned memes can still dehumanise others through fetishisation, as when everything is reduced to an Instagram graphic it’s easy to forget the very real human experiences behind the content. One particularly disturbing example is the recent murder of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police. An article in Vox stated that “as soon as Taylor’s name went viral, the call to action became something closer to a meme-fied catchphrase, with many social media users turning calls to arrest Taylor’s killers into a kind of structural gimmick.”
The tools we use to communicate are in danger of becoming counterproductive to actual communication. The term ‘slacktivism’ describes the practice of supporting a political or social cause by means such as social media, involving very little effort or with the main purpose of boosting the participant’s ego.
And then there’s the concern that memes can very easily become our own personal echo chambers. Tatton Spiller, creator of the Instagram account @SimplePolitics and author of The Breakdown, explains, “The echo chamber effect is pretty awful. You follow people with whom you agree. You share those posts. You don’t interact with friends you follow but don’t share values with, they drop off your timeline, you see more of the stuff with which you do agree. You hear nothing, ever, of the other side. You forget that people with other views really exist. How can anyone believe that nonsense? You completely lose the ability to chat or engage with anyone who doesn’t hold your points of view.”
Memes aren’t going anywhere. They are a part of public conversation and shape the way we interact with events and debates. Even deepfake memes are on the rise. Activist and author of Millennial Black and Anti-Racist Ally, Sophie Williams, tells Screen Shot, “I think people spend so much time on social media, consciously and unconsciously absorbing the information they see, that it can be a really good starting point for people. What I think is essential to emphasise every time, is that posting or sharing on social media is not activism in itself. It’s not the end, it’s just the start. People have to take the information and apply it in their everyday lives, offline, through their actions.”
Social media is a powerful tool. It’s hard to imagine a major pop cultural or political moment that doesn’t generate an influx of internet memes. But with that comes a breeding ground for lies, indifference and optical allyship. Proceed with caution.