Just Say Momo – how the PSNI are helping to spread hoaxes and hysteria online

If you are a member of any parents’ social media groups, then you might have heard of “Momo”, apparently a game that challenges children to perform dangerous tasks. The story is often accompanied by a horrifying picture, which is actually a sculpture created by a Japanese special effects company called Link Factory.

The story is a well-known hoax, and the urban legend debunking site Snopes article has an excellent article on the subject. At the time of writing, the hoax has went viral worldwide, and is the number one trending topic on Twitter in the United States and elsewhere. Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer for the Atlantic who writes about technology and internet culture, sums up the situation fairly comprehensively:

https://twitter.com/TaylorLorenz/status/1100675187450687488

This lady’s tweet abt the hoax (above) has been RT 8,000 times and this story is making the content rounds *again*. I promise it’s not even remotely true! There’s no “Momo” suicide challenge kids are doing. It’s just not a thing. This hoax has gone viral so many times it’s a meme

Many of the reports refer to “police warnings” about the game. However, many of the “police warnings” in question refer to a Facebook post on the Craigavon PSNI page, which states unverified information as fact. Despite reassuring parents that “‘Momo’ isn’t going to crawl out of your childs (sic) phone and kill them”, it states that “even basic open source research (sic) suggests that ‘Momo’ is run by hackers who are looking for personal info” and that “danger lies with your child feeling pressured to … follow the orders”.

After these questionable statements were made on the PSNI Facebook page, they were subsequently covered by BBC Northern Ireland, who again reported these statements as fact. Subsequent coverage in the Independent and elsewhere has copied verbatim sections from the PSNI Craigavon Facebook post, which are invariably referred to as “police warnings”, giving the rumours both a sense of officiality, urgency and seriousness, which both serve to drive clicks and engagement for the media outlets propagating the hoax, and increasing the panic amongst parents and teachers.

To show how the impact of the Facebook post, the chart below (taken from Google Trends) shows activity for the search term “Momo” on Google over the last seven days. The PSNI Craigavon made their post at 8:47 pm on the 24th of February. It can be shown that the spike in interest in “Momo” happened immediately after the PSNI Craigavon Facebook post.

“Momo” is the number one trending topic in the United States at the minute, but the interest has all occurred since the 25th of February, after the Craigavon PSNI’s Facebook post on the 24th. Northern Ireland is the epicentre of the craze.

As Cyber Safety Expert Denise DeRosa says in the Snopes article on the topic:

Experts say even if actual threats from Momo aren’t real, the rumors alone can be frightening for kids and can encourage teens to participate in risky dares.

On a personal level, as a parent of three primary school aged children, I have found this topic to be an upsetting one. What the police say on social media can have a significant impact, and in this case it appears as if careless language and the spreading of unverified information has started a chain reaction that has spread panic and worry for parents and teachers both in Northern Ireland and across the world.

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