How To Not Fall For Viral Scares

Emily Dreyfuss, Culture section, Wired
February 28th, 2019

Who knows what the kids are doing online, right? They’ve got their TikToks and their Snapchats and their flop Instagram accounts, while parents are still posting on Facebook and Twitter. The disconnect between how the olds and their children use the internet leads to parental anxiety, and in the case of this week’s resurfacing of the viral fake Momo challenge, panic and misinformation.

The Momo challenge, according to breathless news reports and posts from worried parents and law enforcement, is a game circulating on social media that encourages kids to engage in increasingly harmful behavior until, eventually, they’re supposed to commit suicide and upload the video to the internet.

Momo is basically every parent’s nightmare. But as multiple outlets have pointed out, there’s no evidence that it’s a real viral challenge. The admittedly freaky image of “Momo” is based on a sculpture by a Japanese artist. While claims of suicides connected to the challenge started surfacing last year, according to Snopes, authorities have never definitively tied any cases to participation in an online game. YouTube—which had been reported as hosting Momo videos—released a statement Wednesday saying it hasn’t encountered Momo videos on the site, and the “extremely online” teens reading warnings about Momo from their parents have responded with, well, eye rolls.

Momo appears to be another example not of dangerous behavior going viral, but of a hoax going viral. It’s what youth advocate Anne Collier calls a “viral media scare.” These are the “razor blades in the Halloween candy” myths of today. And just as that pernicious worry spread in the offline era, Momo and its ilk are boosted along the way not only by concerned parents trying to warn others, but also by the news media, which picks up those warnings and amplifies them.

The result, experts say, is that while the Momo scare didn’t start out real, the attention it’s receiving can actually have the opposite effect of what’s intended: All these warnings can raise the risk that teens or young children would learn about the challenge and take it seriously—or at least be freaked out by the scary image of Momo itself.

When Trying to Help Hurts
If you see a warning on social media about a dangerous viral challenge, like the tweet that seems to have reignited the interest in Momo this week, take a breath. Pause. Before you hit retweet or share, ask yourself two things. “‘Do I know who this behavior will benefit? And what information am I lacking?’ If you can’t answer what you don’t know, and if you can’t answer who is going to benefit from your action, then pause,” says Whitney Phillips, a professor of media literacy at Syracuse University.

Hoaxes like this are created by people with an agenda. And that agenda is virality and panic. The moment you share, you are playing right into their hands.

Playing into their hands isn’t just bad because it gives bad people what they want. It also risks actually hurting the children you’re hoping to help by sharing the information in the first place. “The immediate risk is that more people will be exposed to the hoax, with some of those, possibly, attempting to enact the behaviors,” says Phillips. Virality itself can be a vector for harm. Additionally, some bad actors out there might try to capitalize on the virality of Momo and use it as a weapon to target vulnerable kids; essentially, to copycat on what the hoax claims to be and then attempt to push kids to actually harm themselves.

It’s not just parents who are vulnerable to accidentally spreading hoaxes in an effort to help children. One WIRED staffer said their child’s school sent around a warning about Momo this week, and Taylor Lorenz at The Atlantic notes that even law enforcement can be taken in, choosing to err on the side of sending a warning rather than ignoring it. Speaking as a parent myself, I understand it’s hard to ignore an alert about something that could potentially hurt your kids.

Hoaxes Play on Our Reptilian Brains
As parents, it’s our job to keep our children safe. And the internet, with all its nooks and crannies and fast-moving parts, presents a particularly fraught minefield for kids. Chantal Pontvin, a parent I interviewed earlier this month about social media and kids, put it this way: “My friends have a lot of fear about social media and their children and what they might be doing. They have no interaction with their kids online. They have no idea,” she told me.

Couple that opacity with stories like the one this week about cartoons on YouTube being spliced with instructions on how to kill yourself—videos that have been confirmed to exist—and it’s enough to make some parents want to raise their kids in the woods without internet access. It certainly creates a feeling that something like the Momo challenge, or the Tide Pod Challenge or the Blue Whale game, or any of the other viral hoaxes could very well be reality. The world is a crazy place!

“Parents need to remember that just because something feels right doesn’t mean it is.”

“All compelling hoaxes have a kernel of truth,” says Monica Bulger, senior fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum, who studies children’s rights and media literacy. “And they play into our reptilian minds.” By that she means not only that they play into our biggest fears, but that they sound similar enough to other stories we’ve heard that our brains, which largely run on autopilot, interpret them as being true. This is the illusory truth effect—a glitch in human reasoning that makes things that are familiar feel true. It’s why sometimes even fact-checking a lie can ultimately lead to more people believing it, because it increases the lie’s exposure.

Viral hoax creators know this. “Many meme creators are highly skilled at playing to fears and biases. There are the general things that parents fear, and the top one is child safety,” says Bulger. “Parents need to remember that just because something feels right doesn’t mean it is. You actually can’t trust your gut.” The best way to guard against this cognitive glitch is just to be aware of it.

So what should you do next time you come across some dire warning on the internet, especially if it’s something that hasn’t been debunked? Dramatic reports about kids’ behavior online can be a bit like other kinds of high-profile incidents prone to misinformation, and experts have some suggestions for how to treat them.

Pause, but Then What?
Bulger says that after you pause, wait. Wait a few days. Wait before talking to your kids. Wait and see if you get an actual warning from your school or law enforcement. And if you do get one, like my colleague did, consider whether it includes corroboration. School districts and police departments are authorities, sure, but enough of them have proved to be just as vulnerable to these panics. Are people reporting that any children have actually encountered this or hurt themselves? If the answer is yes, then talk to your child about it. If they bring it up, react with understanding, not panic.

There’s a good reason not to just immediately bring up with your child every viral meme or challenge that you hear about. You could traumatize them, says Bulger. She notes that constant panicked warnings from parents to kids about what they are seeing online are a little like active shooting drills in schools, in that they themselves can do damage. “What causes more harm, the initial meme or the panicked response to it?” she asks.

What’s clear, though, is that like shooter drills, warnings about the Momos of the internet are responses to a real problem. The internet is, in fact, a dangerous and hard-to-understand place. It’s full of creeps, bullies, conspiracy theorists, and extremists. And though hoaxes and memes are most often harmless, they aren’t always. Take Pizzagate, which resulted in someone shooting into a restaurant, and SlenderMan, which inspired two tweens to try to kill their classmate. “Part of what makes our contemporary moment so anxiety inducing is that nothing makes sense,” says Phillips. It’s hard to tell truth from fiction, meme from contagious suicide pact.

What you can do to help your kids navigate this crazy world is encourage an open dialogue about social media and the internet. This will make them resilient, and more able to see something like Momo and not fall victim to it. Don’t, says Bulger, respond by trying to control everything your kids see online. After a certain age, at least, they will come into contact with the internet whether you like it or not.

“So be a safe space for your child to talk to you. It shouldn’t be this constant bombardment of questions about these hoaxes—did you see this Momo thing? Embed internet and media literacy in the daily rhythms of the family,” says Bulger. She wants you to let your kids know: “We’re all online, we’re all figuring this out, and we are a safe space for you to talk about anything you see.”

And most importantly, don’t panic.

Updated on 2-28-2019 at 9:41pm EST to correct details about the Pizzagate-related shooting.