The Momo Challenge is a likely hoax, but that won’t stop news outlets from covering it

Despite the dangers of the “Momo Challenge” being widely debunked, the media will flock to wherever the big clicks lie. 

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In July 2018, police in Buenos Aires were reported to have linked the suicide of a 12-year-old girl to a game, played on WhatsApp, in which kids sent each other pictures of “Momo” – a doll with hideous, bulging eyes – and claimed that she was daring them to do themselves serious bodily harm.

Then in August, the “Momo Challenge” was allegedly connected to the death of two men in India. The story re-emerged this month thanks to a report in the Herald, which said a mother in Edinburgh had caught her son participating in the challenge by holding a knife to his neck. That in turn resulted in a spate of viral posts from parents wanting to protect their children from the challenge – and, of course, wall-to-wall coverage from the media.

At least, this is what outlets like the BBC, CBS News, and the Daily Mail have been reporting. But it turns out, none of these stories were convincingly linked to Momo. In fact, according to internet fact-checker Snopes, the Momo Challenge is likely a hoax. As New Statesman columnist Amelia Tait, one of the first reporters to debunk the story, wrote for iNews earlier this week: “…What is confirmed about the Momo challenge? In short, not much.”

Does this sound irresponsible to you? Do you think that more news outlets should have led with the trend being a hoax, rather than fearmongering over the non-existent challenge itself?

You and me both, buddy. The coverage around Momo has been dominated by headlines talking about a “sick” and “dangerous” “suicide game” with, at best, a caveat halfway through the piece or near the end saying, “Oh yeah, by the way, this probably isn’t a real thing at all”.

The coverage has had a nasty, but inevitable side effect: it’s led to parents exposing their kids to this made-up trend, warning them not to participate, and thus inadvertently creating this incredibly harmful internet challenge for real – all in the name of making their children aware of the dangers.

And herein lies the problem: news outlets get page views out of this challenge becoming an even bigger thing. As scared parents look for ways to explain what’s happening to their kids, they’ll be both sucked into these terrifying, fabricated reports. They’ll keep searching for them, to get further news and information on how to keep their children safe. And this is great news for outlets that rely on lots of clicks to fund their journalism. Those same outlets will get clicks for new reports, explaining that the Momo Challenge is a hoax – but few publications have taken the time to take down the pieces filled with misinformation.

The Momo Challenge will likely stay in the news for at least a little while yet. And so many people have been exposed to it now that it may well lead to harm. But it isn’t the first viral trend conjured into existence by misleading news coverage – remember the Bird Box Challenge? Or the Tide Pod Challenge? And while the business model of online news relies on clicks, it likely won’t be the last.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.