The internet can be a dark place.
While many of the places where the darkest elements of humanity operate in the open aren’t accessible with a standard internet browser – the deep web is a beast unto itself – there are plenty of places where the content will make your skin crawl.
And, unfortunately, it appears that something born out of one of those places – the internet imageboard and home base for trolls the world over, also known as 4chan – has now hit the mainstream and is panicking parents across the country.
The “momo challenge” – which has exemplified and apparently featured the ridiculously creepy image of a bird-like female known in Japanese lore as a “ubume” – was said to have been spread across popular internet content databases like YouTube and YouTube Kids, urging children to commit either suicide or acts of violence against other people.
The “challenge” isn’t anything that is new – the “Momo” phenomenon has swept across other continents since it appeared almost three years ago – and so far, there haven’t been any confirmed cases of this mystery being influencing any person or child to commit any particular act.
But that hasn’t stopped the moral panic that accompanies things like this from sweeping across the country in recent days – spurred, in part, by news stories and even law enforcement response to something that is, by almost all accounts, false.
This is something that happens too often, unfortunately – panicking parents and causing real fear when none needs to exist.
Allow me to explain.
I’m not saying that this “Momo” thing isn’t real. Obviously, somebody has taken the image of a creepy sculpture created by a Japanese artist and doctored some video clips to make it appear like they’re ending up in the middle of children’s videos. Despite searching for hours, I haven’t been able to find a single video where the content that is being described in the panic-stricken messages that have been sweeping the social media landscape appeared embedded in a children’s video. You would think, with everybody carrying around a camcorder in their pockets, that if this were true, you would see somebody clicking on the actual video from the YouTube Kids prompt to show where it originated from, and then highlighting the offensive content.
That isn’t what is happening. The few videos I have seen all start already into the video, which means that the content could have been manipulated after the fact to help spread fear or sow discord. This is what they do on websites like 4chan – these are the people that intentionally pushed out a very-realistic looking graphic a few years ago when the new iPhone came out that claimed it was waterproof, and waited to see the news stories of people complaining when they dunked their new phones in the bathtub or swimming pool only to find out that they aren’t, in fact, waterproof.
Setting aside the kind of person that would do something like that – that would knowingly and willfully cause emotional distress in a person they have never met only so that they could get a kick out of somebody else’s misfortune – for a moment, I also have to pause and point out how intense the response to this has been.
I have seen multiple – as in, more than one – persons wish death and dismemberment upon the people who are supposedly behind this challenge that has been proven false, and such a strong reaction only further compounds the motivations of the people who created it in the first place.
There’s an idea in media circles that maybe sharing the byproduct of terrorist attacks isn’t the best idea since exposure is part of the reason that terrorists do what they do – that by not giving the attackers the spotlight that they so desperately crave, they starve those who would potentially duplicate the horrible actions.
That phenomenon is why, in countries where terrorism reigns supreme, a coffee shop can be bombed on a Thursday and it’s open for business the following day. The owners simply sweep up the broken glass, hose the blood off of the sidewalk, board up the windows, and go on about their lives as if it never happened – they don’t give the people who aim to sow discord the satisfaction of recognizing their actions.
That is exactly what needs to happen in situations like these.
I looked on with fascination two years ago when fear about the “blue whale challenge” – which supposedly led kids through a series of menial and repetitive tasks and culminated with suicide – swept the internet like a firestorm. Searches for the term on Instagram led to a popup with the number for the suicide prevention hotline – meaning that programmers had to actually insert that code to achieve that function – and media outlets the world over talked openly about the new “suicide craze.”
There is only one problem, though. It was fake. And not only was it fake, but the response to the craze may have actually given kids the motivation to put in motion exactly what was being described, and thus leading to something that parents should actually fear. The fear of nothing led to the fear of something that was in fact very real – think about that for a minute.
I don’t fault parents for being concerned about their children. And I don’t even fault media outlets who are contacted by angry and terrified parents – or law enforcement agencies who are contacted by the same – from reacting and issuing stories or statements. It’s actually understandable how that chain of events strings together.
But that panic, on a local level, led Manteca Unified principals to issue letters to parents addressing something that didn’t really need to be addressed while lots of things that are truly scary and terrifying go unaddressed. The district was just trying to get out in front of something that was generating concern, and I get that.
Until we can stop hitting the share button and reacting to everything that flashes across our screen, however, these hoaxes will continue and may actually end up leading the same fears parents are concerned about to come true.
The best thing to do in this situation is something that frequenters of the internet have known for a long time.
Don’t feed the trolls.
To contact reporter Jason Campbell email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 209.249.3544.