The Momo Hoax: Why ‘Accuracy’ Is the Most Important Journalism Standard

Sometimes, trusted news sources can amplify a hoax.

Grade level: Secondary

Lesson links


Background

In early 2019, news outlets around the world became obsessed with Momo — a monstrous creature with sunken round eyes, long black hair, and a creepy, exaggerated smile. 

According to reports, the disturbing image was being spliced into children’s YouTube videos such as Peppa Pig, instructing children to perform a series of increasingly harmful tasks, up to and including suicide. 

It took a wide-scale panic for the story to be revealed as a hoax. 

The image of Momo —  in fact a Japanese sculpture — emerged in this context in 2018. During the summer of that year, a small number of deaths were falsely attributed to Momo by local media in more than one country, and these stories began to spread. 

In early 2019, Momo reached the level of global alarm. The tipping point came when Kim Kardashian used her Instagram account, with 129 million followers, to make a plea for YouTube to remove Momo challenge videos.

The fear continued to spread, as the story was amplified by sources generally considered reliable, such as police, school boards, and local TV news broadcasts. 

Rather than verifying the central claims of the story — that Momo was spliced into YouTube videos, causing harm to children — most media reports relied on low-quality research, interviewing parents who had heard about the challenge, or children at school, none of whom had seen Momo for themselves. 

While some videos with Momo spliced in did appear on YouTube, there is no evidence to support the claim that anyone was injured or killed as a result. 

When that many people are afraid, the fear itself becomes newsworthy enough to be reported on for a broad range of media.  

We rely on trusted sources for information to know what is happening in the world outside our immediate experience. But those sources can also make mistakes. 

These occasions can provide an opportunity to discuss the importance of accurate facts, and the potential consequences when unverified information goes viral.  


Activity Suggestions

    1. Watch this report on the Momo Challenge from a CTV news affiliate in Regina, Sask., and reflect on these questions:
      • What evidence does the report provide to suggest that the Momo Challenge is a real threat? Do you find this evidence convincing?
      • What tone does the report take? What emotions might it elicit from viewers?
      • Do you think this report covered the Momo Challenge responsibly?
    2. Imagine that you are the head of a school board and are receiving calls from parents concerned about the Momo Challenge. You know that you need to address the issue, but you don’t want to create unnecessary fear. How would you respond to this issue in a responsible manner?
    3. Research an older instance of media panic (for instance, Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds, the panic around Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s, the Creepy Clown Sightings hoax of 2016) and consider the following questions:
      • Why do you think this story became popular? What about the story appealed to the public’s fears, anxieties, or interests?
      • How did the story spread? Did the media amplify or help quell misinformation? How did different media outlets treat the hoax? Are there still people/groups online trying to spread misinformation around this issue? 
      • Do you see any connections between this story and the Momo Challenge? What do these stories have in common? How are they different?

Guiding Questions

Why do you think the story of the Momo Challenge was so interesting to the public? 

  • Why do you think so many media outlets reported this story? 
  • Why do you think parents and school boards took these reports seriously?
  • Hoaxes often work when they prey upon real public fears. What fears, anxieties, or biases does the Momo Challenge speak to? Why do you think people were willing to believe the Momo Challenge was true?
  • Do you think the image of Momo contributed to the attention the media gave to the story? Why or why not?

Further reading 

“How local TV news stations are playing a major (and enthusiastic) role in spreading the Momo hoax,” Nieman Lab 

https://www.niemanlab.org/2019/02/how-local-tv-news-stations-are-playing-a-major-and-enthusiastic-role-in-spreading-the-momo-hoax/

“The bogus “Momo challenge” internet hoax, explained,” Vox 

https://www.vox.com/2019/3/3/18248783/momo-challenge-hoax-explained

“Opinion: Momo Is The Oldest Kind Of Story: Don’t Leave Your Kids Alone In The Woods,” Joan Donovan, Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media Politics and Public Policy, BuzzFeed News 

https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/joandonovan/youtube-is-a-house-made-of-candy-momo-is-the-witch


Glossary Terms: 

Amplification:

The process through which a story or rumour that begins on social media is picked up and reported on by traditional news sources, legitimizing the message and exposing it to a broad audience.

Journalism Standards:

The characteristics that define a report as journalistic, and signal its level of quality. These standards of journalism include: accuracy, sourcing, research, context, and fairness.

News Values:

A set of generally agreed on criteria that determine what editors and producers present to the public as news. The greater number of news values present, the stronger the likelihood that an issue or event will be covered as news.