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The Momo Challenge: The Viral Online Threat That Wasn’t

We’ve delved into the dark side of social media on this blog before, and this will be another one of those posts. Specifically, how instantaneous information coupled with a plugged-in, sometimes paranoid, populace can create viral outrage without digging deeper for the facts. No better way was this exemplified than last week’s “Momo Challenge,” a quickly evolving, quasi internet urban legend that terrified parents and led to some drastic action.

Of course, the whole thing was a hoax.

If the “Momo Challenge” didn’t blip on your radar, you’re one of the lucky ones. But many of you reading this probably saw a post or two from concerned parents about this new online boogeyman—one who resides on messaging platforms and clandestinely in children’s YouTube videos, encouraging self-harm and suicide.

If you’re a parent or just someone concerned with what kids are viewing online, this would no doubt elicit a concerned response. But the problem with these outrage-driven reactions is that rational thinking often goes out the window in exchange for fear, and a Twitter post or obscure blog post is taken as gospel.

Such was the case with the “Momo Challenge.” It simply doesn’t exist.

But that did not stop immediate action. Schools have issued warnings to parents—some cutting access to YouTube altogether. I can see an “overabundance of caution” perspective for doing such things, but many of these responses seem borne of simple groupthink without independent research. Panic begs panic, and before you know it you’ve expanded the reach of a viral hoax.

It’s called “going viral” for a reason. Ideas, videos, memes, and posts can quickly replicate and spread online, their virulence transcending borders, communities, and demographics. It’s definitely great news that this all turned out to be nonsense, but it drills home another important point: not everything that appears in your newsfeed is true.   

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