Mitchell Robinson is a writer for Eclectablog and associate professor and chair of music education at Michigan State University, as well as being a former high-school teacher. His research is focused on music education and education policy.
I was really concerned to read about something called the Momo Challenge. This is a social media meme, a chain message spread on Whatsapp, Facebook and other platform which tells of a powerful internet message that could induce young people to harm themselves.
Except it’s not.
And that’s not the bit I’m concerned about. Sure, stupid people make up stupid stories from time to time. What I’m really concerned about is the degree of traction this story got from people who should know better, and from people who should know that they don’t know. The basic message was that by some evil technical magic, messages were being inserted into children’s videos on YouTube which would, a bit like the film The Ring, make the kids go and commit suicide.
In the UK, for example, school administrators warned pupils and parents of the danger, major newspapers ran breathless stories of how dangerous it was for teenagers, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland issued an official warning as did various local forces in the US, and the RCMP in Canada said they were devoting resources to monitor the situation.
Not to be outdone, the French ministry of the interior said it was reviewing the situation daily. Spanish police issued a warning to people though it’s not clear what they warned people about, and Belgian police went so far as to say that it had caused the death of a 13-year old boy.
The BBC ran a story, which they have since removed, which claimed that forwarding the messages about the Momo Challenge allowed ‘hackers to harvest information’, which technically is nonsense, probably why they killed the story.
But the entire thing was nonsense. The only interest in this was cooked up by tabloid newspapers, and a few higher-brow outlets who should know better, like the BBC. To be clear, responsible organisations who looked into this, such as the UK National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Samaritans, and the UK Safer Internet Centre investigated and said that the phenomena didn’t exist, and there was no threat to young people or anyone else.
So how did people get so worried that school authorities and even police forces were issuing warnings to parents? That’s what I’m concerned about.
There’s all sorts of nonsense on the internet at any given time, but only rarely does a story break out into the offline world. I think that one of the reasons this story took off, is because it sounds just about plausible to some people who are motivated to believe it.
Obviously the people repeating the story have a very low level of technical understanding of the internet, and that probably goes along with them being the sort of people not really liking the internet; so when a story comes along that confirms all their biases about how the internet was an evil and bad all along, that tells them what they want to hear; they want it to be true, so they don’t analyse it critically.
There are echoes of the anti-vaccine movement here too, the idea that young people are at risk from things their parents don’t understand is a powerful motivator. You can almost hear the ghost of Maude Flanders saying ‘Won’t somebody think of the children!’
But my real concern is that in an age when engagement beats fact-checking, reality can become almost irrelevant.