July 2018, the internet — the Momo Challenge gained the public’s attention when it was noticed by YouTuber ReignBot. Targeting teenagers, people presenting themselves as Momo on WhatsApp messages tried to convince people to contact them through their cell phone. Players are then instructed to perform a succession of tasks, and refusal to do so would be met with death threats. Messages are subsequently accompanied by frightening or gory pictures.
Police forces and school administrators around the world issued warnings about the Momo Challenge and repeated common advice about internet safety. WhatsApp also encouraged its users to block phone numbers engaging in this practice and to report them to the company.
The New Blue Whale?
This eerie challenge echoes another suicide game back in 2016. Moral panic swept over Russia after Blue Whale first attracted news coverage in an article from Novaya Gazeta. Blue Whale was a game reportedly consisting of a series of tasks assigned to players by administrators over a fifty-day period, initially harmless before introducing elements of self-harm. The final challenge required the player to commit suicide.
The previous year, a Russian teenager posted a selfie with the caption “nya bye” before committing suicide. Soon, her death was discussed in internet forums and groups, becoming mixed with scare stories and folklore. Further suicides were added to the forum. Afterward, Russian journalist Galina Mursaliyeva wrote about these “death groups” in the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta in April 2016. However, Mursaliyeva’s article was heavily criticized at the time of its release for lack of credible data.
But later, despite skepticism regarding the game’s existence, the creators of the suicide game soon confessed to their crimes and were arrested. Philipp Budeikin, a 21-year-old former psychology student who was expelled from his university, claimed that he invented the game in 2013 to “cleanse society.” He said he thinks of his victims as “biological waste,” and he told police that the victims were “happy to die.” Postman Ilya Sidorov was arrested in Moscow after he claimed to have persuaded 32 children to join the challenge and follow commands. Lastly, in 2018, Russian financial analyst Nikita Nearonov was arrested for allegedly masterminding the Blue Whale game. Nearonov said he held a large amount of contempt for teenagers, believing that they were “wicked” and “deserved to die.”
Though the actual origins of the Momo Challenge itself are unclear, it reportedly made its rounds in Latin America and other Spanish-speaking countries, with Mexican authorities claiming that the trend stemmed from a Facebook group. According to Google trends, the Momo Challenge picked up steam in the English-speaking world until YouTuber ReignBot made a video devoted to the challenge in July 2018. According to the video, those who texted Momo’s number were told to complete a series of strange and increasingly dangerous tasks. Similar to the Blue Whale Challenge, the tasks started with something innocent like watching a horror movie late at night, ending with a call for kids to harm themselves or take their own lives. Failure to complete the tasks apparently would result in threats.
Although ReignBot’s debunked the existence of the Momo Challenge, the story nonetheless spread in English-speaking news outlets, urging parents to watch their children’s online activities.
Reports have also surfaced about YouTube videos of kid-friendly characters like Peppa Pig being edited with images of Momo, as well as instructions for children to practice self-harm. Such videos appear to be made by trolls with the express intention of trying to disturb children.
Surprisingly, YouTube announced that they would no longer allow videos featuring Momo to be monetized—to feature ads before, after, or during the clips—even if they come from respected news organizations who are reporting on the phenomenon.
Momo Challenge Going Viral
Although the challenge allegedly began in July 2018 on WhatsApp, the number of actual complaints was relatively small and authorities did not confirm that anyone was harmed as a direct result. The Momo Challenge resurfaced in February 2019 after the Police Service of Northern Ireland posted a public warning on Facebook, which was shared over 9,000 times. A Twitter user in late February also tweeted a warning (now removed) that read “Warning! Please read, this is real. There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves. INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.”
Maximoff’s post was retweeted more than 22,000 times, and the screenshot featuring the creepy face of Momo has spread like wildfire across the internet. Adding fuel to the fire, Kim Kardashian also posted a warning about the Momo Challenge to her 129 million Instagram followers.
Several news outlets all over the world began reporting suicides of boys and girls despite the lack of confirmed links to the online challenge.
While undeniably terrifying, Momo’s “face” has nothing to do with the Momo Challenge. The bug-eyed girl with unkempt hair and birdlike limbs that’s associated with Momo is actually a sculpture made by Keisuke Aisawa for the Link Factory, a Japanese company that makes horror film props and special effects. The sculpture was displayed at a show at the Gen (Vanilla) Gallery, a gallery in Tokyo’s Ginza district, way back August 2016. After photos of this sculpture were posted on Instagram, it started to gain attention on Reddit, particularly the subreddit r/creepy, where it garnered thousands of upvotes and comments.
However, the sculpture, named “Mother Bird,” has already been thrown away, says Keisuke Aisawa. The sculptor said the sculpture “doesn’t exist anymore” and “was never meant to last.”
As of now, per The Atlantic‘s article, Momo is said to be a hoax: “To any concerned parents reading this: Do not worry. The Momo challenge is a recurring viral hoax that has been perpetuated by local news stations and scared parents around the world.”
On the other hand, Rolling Stone still encourages everyone to be wary, citing a 2017 viral essay by tech writer James Bridle. “Popular platforms like YouTube are flooded with content creators who exploit the platform’s algorithm in order to create disturbing and often violent videos that are specifically targeted at children, often using popular kids’ characters,” it states. “Further, YouTube has lost advertisers over recent reports that pedophiles were congregating in the platform’s comments sections, sometimes even posting links to actual child porn in the process.”
Benjamin Radford, a folklorist and research fellow for the Committee for Skeptic Inquiry, says that although there’s no real truth to [games like the Momo Challenge] or evidence that it’s a real threat, “there’s a kernel of truth to [online suicide challenges], in that cyberbullying does happen. Sexual extortion does happen.”
Still best to be cautious since the internet is already dangerous as it is.