Haasch: Momo challenge hoax raises questions about digital literacy

The viral challenge is only viral because of an inability to see through digital misinformation.

Palmer Haasch

Sometimes adults do stupid things on the internet. (Disclaimer: at one time or another, everyone does something stupid on the internet.) However, concerned parents and media organizations are responsible for the propagation of the now viral “Momo suicide challenge.” In theory, the meme itself — an image of a woman’s face with bulging eyes, greasy bangs and a too-far-stretched grin — spreads among children through YouTube videos or other online media, urging children to commit suicide.

Although Momo has successfully made the rounds both on the internet and in the terrified public American consciousness multiple times, one commonality unites each instance. Momo, every time, is a hoax that spreads due to misinformed news stations and media publications. The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz reports hoaxes like this spread in a fairly predictable manner: after a local news station picks up on a “dangerous teen trend,” and worried parents flood social media feeds to warn others. After this, brands and influencers capitalize on the trend while trolls create content that seemingly confirms parents’ fears. Then, Lorenz writes, “actual teenagers and anyone else who lives their life Extremely Online mock them for their naivete.”

While the Extremely Online of us who grew up among technology and social media know that the Momo challenge is a blatant hoax, that particular digital fluency doesn’t necessarily carry over to older generations. University of Minnesota senior Gabby Granada first encountered the Momo challenge through a viral Facebook post that her aunt shared in genuine spirit. The Facebook post reads: “Your child could be watching a normal episode of pepper pig [sic], paw patrol, Thomas the tank, when this face will pop [up] warning them that if they ever talk to u about seeing this face they will die and tells them fucked up shit like to commit suicide or your family will die etc!”

“The second I saw it I knew it was fake,” Granada said. “My first reaction was an eye roll because … all of my relatives over 35 weren’t media literate and wouldn’t take me seriously because I’m a college age kid trying to explain media literacy to them.” Granada said that after her aunt shared the post on Facebook, her mother warned her about the challenge and her step-father circulated an internal memo cautioning against the challenge to other members of the family.

However, the fact remains that the Momo challenge is completely fabricated. It’s propagated through social media and media promotion from news outlets and spooked parents alike. However, for anyone who has a certain threshold of internet fluency is easily able to recognize hoaxes like this for what they are. It’s worth noting that suicide challenge hoaxes — including different iterations of the Momo challenge — are nothing new. 

How can we expect parents or adults without a functional level of digital literacy to teach safe internet skills to kids? There’s a disconnect between tech native kids and parents who are seemingly unable to catch up, resulting in social media fear-mongering over phenomena that are easily seen through. In an age of digital misinformation, it’s imperative all of us are critical of the content we consume online. Momo isn’t coming for us — even if our parents seem to worry she is.