There’s no rhyme or reason to these things. They show up on different social media platforms, start in different parts of the world, but don’t always take off in regions where they started. There are cultural aspects to what makes them go viral but also universal ones: They “excite children’s and teens’ imaginations, increase careless media outlets’ appetite and opportunities for bigger audiences, and provoke panic among parents,” as media literacy expert Georgi Apostolov at Bulgaria’s Safer Internet Centre put it. So here’s perspective on the latest ones, with thoughts for parents. Don’t miss the sidebar below featuring the U.S.’s National Association for Media Literacy Education….
Momo is another one of these viral media “things” that nobody is sure what to call. Probably the best term is “viral media scares.” Like the “Blue Whale game” of 2015-‘17 and the “neknomination” dare earlier in this decade, the very reason why it’s internationally viral is that it’s really creepy, strikes fear in the hearts of adults who care about kids, and spreads widely through social media (with a whole lot of help from mainstream news media, which tends to cover things that go viral).
Because multiplying news reports refer to Momo as “a suicide challenge,” police rightfully feel obligated to look for any connection to it when they investigate cases. Then they tell reporters who ask about a connection that they’re checking into that, naturally using the word “suicide.” That’s what happened in a case reported by the Buenos Aires Times, but we haven’t been able to find a single report of police in any country confirming that a minor’s suicide was linked to Momo.
What it is
What “Momo” is, it seems, is accounts in WhatsApp (but also seen in Reddit, YouTube and Instagram) that reportedly send a message saying something like, “you should send a message to this number ______, which will send you predictions about your future.” According to some reports, the message might include a threat that the recipient will be cursed if they don’t reply. If someone does contact “Momo,” they reportedly get other threats, frightening photos, and/or challenges to complete harmful tasks. So people who reply to or contact a Momo account are basically giving someone permission to troll them — and possibly send malware to their phones, some reports say. Momo is more than one account because copycats often join the “fun” as coverage grows, and more than one phone number associated with it has been found in WhatsApp.
Momo doesn’t appear to be as widespread as Blue Whale was, but this could be early days. As with other viral scares, the creators have no intention to be found. So it’s really hard to know how this one got started and who started it where on the Internet — which is why media outlets typically just cite each other as sources (even sketchy supermarket-tabloid-type publications in other countries). So we’re looking at a sort of vicious circle of quasi-news reporting.