How ‘Momo’, a global social media hoax about a paranormal threat to kids, morphed into a U.S. viral phenomenon

How ‘Momo’, a global social media hoax about a paranormal threat to kids, morphed into a U.S. viral phenomenon

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By Ben Collins and Shoshana Wodinsky

Facebook pages of local police departments, celebrities like Kim Kardashian, and even email blasts from principals to concerned parents across the U.S. warned of a viral meme that claimed children viewing an image called “Momo” while browsing YouTube could result in suicide or self-harm.

The character, according to some rumors, was splicing itself into YouTube videos dedicated to Fortnite or the animated children’s series Peppa Pig, and even some videos that were pre-approved by the popular YouTube Kids app, to blast harmful messages.

A YouTube spokesperson said the company has seen no evidence of Momo suicide dares spliced into content for children, and these kinds of viral “challenges” are against the company’s terms of service.

“We’ve seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. Videos encouraging harmful and dangerous challenges are against our policies,” a company spokesperson wrote on Twitter.

The purportedly dangerous meme, however, is a variation of a widespread viral hoax that spread through the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp in South America last July, then moved across India and several countries in Europe before reigniting this week.

Dire warnings about the image, which is a picture of a Japanese sculpture featuring the face of a ghostly young girl atop a bird’s body, began as a chain letter that was sent around the messaging app in Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico last year. Mirroring its trajectory in the U.S., the meme drew various warnings from local police and local news broadcasts about its potential danger, before dying out in less than a month.

Last July, the attorney general of Tabasco, Mexico, issued a warning that receiving messages from people posing as Momo on WhatsApp could result in a wide range of negative consequences, including “theft of personal information, incitement to suicide or violence, extortion, harassment and disorders such as insomnia, anxiety and depression.”

Quickly, however, security experts like Dfndr’s Jeannie Mark denounced it as a “social engineering scheme” that “echoed reports of the Blue Whale Challenge that went viral in 2016, which has been debated as a hoax.”

It’s possible, Mark claimed at the time, WhatsApp users with less strict security settings could receive a message from an unknown account using the photo of Momo as a profile picture, then start any kind of conversation. It’s also possible for strangers to message WhatsApp users with lax security settings with any other kind of photo or name, not just one purporting to be “Momo.”

According to a Google Trends analysis, searches for Momo spiked in Bolivia and Argentina to an all-time high the week of July 15. The top posts queried Google for “Momo historia,” or the meme’s background, “Momo WhatsApp,” and “Momo numero,” as users were searching for “Momo’s” potential phone number.

Google’s analysis shows the fad faded fast. On Aug. 15, exactly one month after its peak in Bolivia, searches for Momo were back near an all-time low.

According to Daniel Funke, who focuses on misinformation at the journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalism, WhatsApp’s features were pivotal in the spread of Momo and other forms of disinformation throughout South America, where the app is heavily used among smartphone owners.

“In terms of WhatsApp, misinformation spreads so quickly in part because it’s so easy to forward things to your friends and family,” Funke said. “Hoaxes spread really rapidly, and it’s hard to combat them since the platform is encrypted—which means not even WhatsApp’s own staff can see what goes viral.”

By that point, the meme had traveled across the world. Stories warning of Momo’s imminent danger were spreading fast across India the week of Aug.12, some using the meme’s scare tactics to make fun of public figures in viral tweets.

Google queries rose in tandem with another viral scare hoax called “Blue Whale,” which began in Russia on the social network VKontakte and was falsely tied to reports of teen suicides.

“Fact-checkers have told me that hoaxes they debunked years ago will still crop up on WhatsApp from time to time because it’s essentially a black box for information sharing,” Funke said.

Searches for Momo in India peaked on Aug. 12 but dithered almost as quickly as they did in South American countries one month before. By Oct. 10, searches for the hoax were back to near all-time lows.

The meme had a similarly rapid rise and fall in France days after it gained prominence in India.

Still, the panic did not reach its peak in the U.S. until this week, when it received a twist: “Momo,” the legend said, would randomly appear inside children’s videos on YouTube, and would tell them to commit suicide.

Rumors about Momo swirled around the internet just days after real reports by YouTubers and news outlets showed code words were embedded within some YouTube comments underneath videos on the platform that helped pedophiles better find content featuring young children.

Viral posts about Momo, at times featuring less reliable evidence, took off just days later. On Tuesday, a Twitter user named BreeDaAuraGod_ shared a viral Facebook post about the dangers of Momo. That tweet had since received over 25,000 retweets by Thursday night.

While the existence of videos may have been apocryphal, the rumor spread like wildfire. Local police took to Facebook to warn parents. Schools like the All Saints Day School in Hoboken, New Jersey, sent out an alert to parents about Momo. Even Kim Kardashian West told parents to “please be aware and very cautious” of “a thing called ‘Momo.’”

In reality, videos on YouTube that claim to feature Momo frequently don’t feature Momo at all. Some claim to show Momo in the middle but simply promote rap songs, vlogs or other content not aimed at children.

A similar phenomenon can be seen on Instagram, where users co-opt the virality of hashtags like #momochallenge in an attempt to boost their content, even if the post does not feature Momo.

Warnings about the dangers of Momo videos in the U.S. were heavily promoted on Facebook this week, but not just by trolls and other traditional disinformation agents.

An NBC News analysis using the Facebook metrics platform Crowdtangle revealed the top post on the platform about Momo since Tuesday was a Salt Lake City CBS affiliate’s segment warning parents about Momo. The post, originally published on Tuesday morning, was shared over 350,000 times and featured over 55,000 comments.

“PARENTAL ALERT: A viral challenge encouraging suicide and giving kids tips on how to do it is infiltrating children’s video websites like YouTube Kids,” the post reads. A repost of the same segment by a Chattanooga ABC affiliate received almost 23,000 shares.

By Thursday, the story had reached a fever pitch nationwide, receiving segments on CBS News and The TODAY Show, which noted a Snopes story that said Momo’s unexpected appearance in YouTube videos “may be far more hype or hoax than reality.”

Funke called Momo’s ascendence “a feedback loop, in a way,” believing it’s possible the proliferation of the warnings could will a hoax into reality.

He added that there is a real, different lesson parents can learn about the dangers YouTube presents to audiences from the Momo phenomenon: how fast misinformation can stir up a panic online.

“This is a classic case in which misinformers capitalize on a specific audience’s emotions to get more amplification,” Funke said. “In this case, a hoax about a suicide challenge will obviously get traction from parents and older folks.”

Ben Collins

Ben Collins covers disinformation, extremism and the internet for NBC News.

This content was originally published here.

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Trump’s 2020 attack strategy: Smear Biden over mental fitness
By Eric Bradner, Ryan Nobles and Dan Merica, CNN

President Donald Trump and his allies have zeroed-in on an attack against Joe Biden, going after the presumptive Democratic governmental nominee’s mental physical fitness in a coordinated effort using smears and innuendo to paint him as ill-quipped to be President of the United States.

Trump for months has questioned the mental skill of the opponent he calls “Drowsy Joe.” Trump last week described Biden as “a sleepy person in a basement of a home,” and he has actually repeatedly recommended that Biden did not personally write declarations issued by his project criticizing Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

His project and the Republican National Committee have progressively focused its attacks on Biden’s tendency for on-camera verbal stumbles in recent weeks, as it looks for to define Biden after he emerged triumphant from the Democratic primary.

One example came previously this month, when Trump’s campaign launched an ad comparing Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which closed with the line: “At least Bernie remembers his positions.”

https://twitter.com/parscale/status/1247928262036258816

The attacks are an early demonstration of how Trump will utilize the full Republican politician Celebration apparatus to run a scorched-earth campaign based upon personal insults and unwarranted insinuations– a heightened variation of his playbook from 2016, when Trump and his allies, without proof, called into question Hillary Clinton’s health. They have actually become a daily occurrence from Trump’s campaign, assistants and Republican allies throughout every medium possible– on social media, in campaign e-mail blasts and videos and on Trump-aligned media companies like Fox News.

Biden’s advisers and Democratic allies mention that Trump is guilty of many of the same verbal tics he is attacking Biden over, and often lies and embraces conspiracy theories.

As one Biden ally put it: “Has Trump taken his own guidance and downed a gallon of bleach yet?”

The attacks weaponize Biden’s propensity to stumble over words, utilize the wrong word or interrupt himself in the middle of long answers by stating, “anyhow,” and altering course. To fans of a former vice president who in December 2018 called himself a “gaffe maker,” those long-time spoken tics have always belonged to Biden’s public persona. They are made more forgivable to his advocates by Biden’s openness about conquering a stutter.

Aside from periodic jousts amongst assistants on Twitter, Biden’s project has mostly neglected the Trump project’s attacks.

Biden-world’s view is that the political and media landscape has actually shifted because 2016, when every Trump attack on a rival was treated as novel and took command of the project narrative on social media and cable news.

His consultants pointed to Trump’s stopped working efforts to guide the political discussion in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race, when he and his GOP allies cautioned of the MS-13 gang, in addition to the 2018 midterms, when Trump’s message concentrated on caravans of refugees approaching the US-Mexico border.

” The misapprehension that whatever Trump wishes to speak about is inherently efficient and that he gets to act as the media’s at-large task editor has actually been closed,” a Biden consultant said.

As Biden has adapted to marketing in the age of coronavirus– knocked off the campaign path and rather transmitting occasions and interviews from a transformed rec room in his basement in Delaware– Trump’s project is seizing on every on-camera miscue, with conservative Trump allies such as Fox News host Sean Hannity then magnifying them.

” His sharpness, or absence thereof is on screen every day, every time he talks,” Trump project spokesperson Tim Murtaugh informed CNN in response to concerns about the technique. “His failure to keep a train of thought going is obvious.”

Biden frequently looks down at his notes, which Trump’s allies have actually mischaracterized as Biden dropping off to sleep. Trump’s boy Eric Trump tweeted a seven-second video from Biden’s online broadcast with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, along with the hashtag “#SleepyJoe.”.

https://twitter.com/EricTrump/status/1255213748811374596.

Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign supervisor, said Trump “always projects his biggest weakens on his challenger in an attempt to deflect criticism from himself.”.

” What is very clear is the White Home thinks his presidency will be evaluated on how properly he is managing coronavirus, so it makes ideal sense that he is now attempting to accuse his challenger of incompetence, which is ridiculous.”.

The attacks resemble how Trump’s campaign pursued Clinton in 2016, Mook noted. Trump and his campaign frequently cast the former secretary of state as sick or unhealthy, a technique that was further elevated after Clinton stumbled after a September 11 occasion in New York due to concealed pneumonia.

” I simply see a pattern regularly from 2016 all the way through now, which is, he attempts to predict his most significant issues onto his opponents so he gives the media a false equivalence to attempt to muddy the water,” Mook stated. “Part of the factor he was so obsessed with calling Hillary Clinton dishonest is because he is probably the most deceitful individual to win the White Home.”.

Biden advisers argue that Trump’s efforts to caricature Biden won’t overcome the same qualities that insulated him in the Democratic primary: After 5 decades in the public eye and eight years as President Barack Obama’s No. 2, voters feel like they know him.

Biden frequently expresses distaste for attacks on his rivals’ character. His aides say that by questioning Biden’s mental capability, the President is guiding the project toward concerns of character and fitness.

” This is asinine to tee up– since it’s 10,000 times even worse for him,” a Biden adviser stated.

As an example of how easily Trump could be parodied, Biden’s assistants indicated a video from The Daily Show in which Fox News hosts and analysts’ comments about Biden’s mental skill were interspersed with videos of Trump’s own verbal flubs.

Biden spokesman Andrew Bates tweeted The Daily Program’s video, which has been seen 3.6 million times on Twitter, on March 25, in action to Trump spokesperson Matt Wolking tweeting: “When is the last time Joe Biden was lucid?”.

https://twitter.com/AndrewBatesNC/status/1242886701002960896.

” Triggering voters to assess prospects’ mental states is a devastating proposal for Donald Trump, so we’re never going to prevent him from going there,” Bates said.
– CNNPolitics.

Trump’s 2020 attack strategy: Smear Biden over mental fitness By Eric Bradner, Ryan Nobles and Dan Merica, CNN President Donald Trump and his allies have zeroed-in on an attack against Joe Biden, going after the presumptive Democratic governmental nominee’s mental physical fitness in a coordinated effort using smears and innuendo to paint him as ill-quipped to be President of the United States. Trump for months has questioned the mental skill of the opponent he calls “Drowsy Joe.” Trump last week described Biden as “a sleepy person in a basement of a home,” and he has actually repeatedly recommended that Biden did not personally write declarations issued by his project criticizing Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. His project and the Republican National Committee have progressively focused its attacks on Biden’s tendency for on-camera verbal stumbles in recent weeks, as it looks for to define Biden after he emerged triumphant from the Democratic primary. One example came previously this month, when Trump’s campaign launched an ad comparing Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which closed with the line: “At least Bernie remembers his positions.” https://twitter.com/parscale/status/1247928262036258816 The attacks are an early demonstration of how Trump will utilize the full Republican politician Celebration apparatus to run a scorched-earth campaign based upon personal insults and unwarranted insinuations– a heightened variation of his playbook from 2016, when Trump and his allies, without proof, called into question Hillary Clinton’s health. They have actually become a daily occurrence from Trump’s campaign, assistants and Republican allies throughout every medium possible– on social media, in campaign e-mail blasts and videos and on Trump-aligned media companies like Fox News. Biden’s advisers and Democratic allies mention that Trump is guilty of many of the same verbal tics he is attacking Biden over, and often lies and embraces conspiracy theories. As one Biden ally put it: “Has Trump taken his own guidance and downed a gallon of bleach yet?” The attacks weaponize Biden’s propensity to stumble over words, utilize the wrong word or interrupt himself in the middle of long answers by stating, “anyhow,” and altering course. To fans of a former vice president who in December 2018 called himself a “gaffe maker,” those long-time spoken tics have always belonged to Biden’s public persona. They are made more forgivable to his advocates by Biden’s openness about conquering a stutter. Aside from periodic jousts amongst assistants on Twitter, Biden’s project has mostly neglected the Trump project’s attacks. Biden-world’s view is that the political and media landscape has actually shifted because 2016, when every Trump attack on a rival was treated as novel and took command of the project narrative on social media and cable news. His consultants pointed to Trump’s stopped working efforts to guide the political discussion in the 2017 Virginia governor’s race, when he and his GOP allies cautioned of the MS-13 gang, in addition to the 2018 midterms, when Trump’s message concentrated on caravans of refugees approaching the US-Mexico border. ” The misapprehension that whatever Trump wishes to speak about is inherently efficient and that he gets to act as the media’s at-large task editor has actually been closed,” a Biden consultant said. As Biden has adapted to marketing in the age of coronavirus– knocked off the campaign path and rather transmitting occasions and interviews from a transformed rec room in his basement in Delaware– Trump’s project is seizing on every on-camera miscue, with conservative Trump allies such as Fox News host Sean Hannity then magnifying them. ” His sharpness, or absence thereof is on screen every day, every time he talks,” Trump project spokesperson Tim Murtaugh informed CNN in response to concerns about the technique. “His failure to keep a train of thought going is obvious.” Biden frequently looks down at his notes, which Trump’s allies have actually mischaracterized as Biden dropping off to sleep. Trump’s boy Eric Trump tweeted a seven-second video from Biden’s online broadcast with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, along with the hashtag “#SleepyJoe.”. https://twitter.com/EricTrump/status/1255213748811374596. Robby Mook, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign supervisor, said Trump “always projects his biggest weakens on his challenger in an attempt to deflect criticism from himself.”. ” What is very clear is the White Home thinks his presidency will be evaluated on how properly he is managing coronavirus, so it makes ideal sense that he is now attempting to accuse his challenger of incompetence, which is ridiculous.”. The attacks resemble how Trump’s campaign pursued Clinton in 2016, Mook noted. Trump and his campaign frequently cast the former secretary of state as sick or unhealthy, a technique that was further elevated after Clinton stumbled after a September 11 occasion in New York due to concealed pneumonia. ” I simply see a pattern regularly from 2016 all the way through now, which is, he attempts to predict his most significant issues onto his opponents so he gives the media a false equivalence to attempt to muddy the water,” Mook stated. “Part of the factor he was so obsessed with calling Hillary Clinton dishonest is because he is probably the most deceitful individual to win the White Home.”. Biden advisers argue that Trump’s efforts to caricature Biden won’t overcome the same qualities that insulated him in the Democratic primary: After 5 decades in the public eye and eight years as President Barack Obama’s No. 2, voters feel like they know him. Biden frequently expresses distaste for attacks on his rivals’ character. His aides say that by questioning Biden’s mental capability, the President is guiding the project toward concerns of character and fitness. ” This is asinine to tee up– since it’s 10,000 times even worse for him,” a Biden adviser stated. As an example of how easily Trump could be parodied, Biden’s assistants indicated a video from The Daily Show in which Fox News hosts and analysts’ comments about Biden’s mental skill were interspersed with videos of Trump’s own verbal flubs. Biden spokesman Andrew Bates tweeted The Daily Program’s video, which has been seen 3.6 million times on Twitter, on March 25, in action to Trump spokesperson Matt Wolking tweeting: “When is the last time Joe Biden was lucid?”. https://twitter.com/AndrewBatesNC/status/1242886701002960896. ” Triggering voters to assess prospects’ mental states is a devastating proposal for Donald Trump, so we’re never going to prevent him from going there,” Bates said. – CNNPolitics.

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