THE LAST WORD: Internet myths not worth worrying about

Kerry Hubartt

Read carefully: This column is not intended to perpetuate a viral internet hoax. It is meant to dispel it.

The social media hoax is called “Momo,” which has popped up in conversations among children in our schools and prompted concerns among their parents. But it’s not real, and there really isn’t anything to worry about.

Unfortunately, something like this can become more than it is through curiosity, fear and uninformed responses.

A February Atlantic magazine article about the so-called Momo challenge began:

On Tuesday afternoon, a Twitter user going by the name of Wanda Maximoff whipped out her iPhone and posted a terrifying message to parents.

“Warning! Please read, this is real,” she tweeted. “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves,” the attached screenshot of a Facebook post reads. “INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”

The tweeter’s urgent message was retweeted thousands of times, and the media made it a news story the following day, “amplifying it,” according to the Atlantic, “to millions of terrified parents.”

Momo is not the first internet hoax worrying parents. Slender Man, you may recall, was purportedly the impetus behind two 12-year-old girls from Wisconsin who tried to stab their best friend to death in 2014.

Like the fictional Slender Man and weird web hoaxes such as eating detergent pods, Momo is just one more urban legend adding to the long list of things to make parents want to ban their kids from the internet. Googling “Momo” will bring up spooky images of the supposed character.

The Momo challenge circulated in Latin America previously and spurred attention in Northern Ireland after law enforcement posted a public warning about it on Facebook. When Kim Kardashian posted on Instagram a plea to her 129 million followers that YouTube take down alleged Momo videos, the hoax went viral in the U.S.

A YouTube video by someone calling themselves ReignBot last July attempted to explain what it is, but that may have only served to increase interest and prompt internet trolls and hackers to perpetuate or parody the myth.

According to ReignBot’s video, those who texted Momo’s number were told to complete a series of tasks, beginning with something harmless, such as watching a horror movie late at night, then culminating with telling kids to harm themselves or even take their own lives. If they did not complete the tasks, there were supposedly threats of personal harm.

So when your child brings home tales of Momo from school, keep a cool head and don’t fuel the flames of fear and trepidation. It’s not real. It only threatens to become real through our own irrational responses.

“It hasn’t been much of an issue district-wide,” Fort Wayne Community Schools public information officer Krista Stockman told us. “When it comes up, schools might deal with it on an individual basis by explaining that it is a hoax and reminding students of being safe and smart media consumers. We’ve intentionally tried to not make more of an issue about it so we’re not perpetuating the hoax.”

YouTube has lately announced that it would no longer allow videos featuring Momo to include ads. The video-sharing website also confirmed that it hasn’t seen any evidence of videos showing or promoting the Momo challenge on its platform. A spokesman said if the videos did exist they would be removed instantly for violating YouTube policies.

And please note, there have been no corroborated reports that any child ever took their own life as a result of this fake challenge.

“Worried parents share these hoax stories relentlessly on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram,” the Atlantic article explained. “Many parents believe that spreading awareness about the latest dangerous craze will help kids stay safe, but they could very well be doing the opposite.”

The moral of this story is that you don’t believe everything you hear or read on the internet or Facebook, etc., and that, by all means, you don’t spread that stuff without a thorough search for the truth.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.