Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
Feb. 28, 2019, 3:35 p.m.
Audience & Social

How local TV news stations are playing a major (and enthusiastic) role in spreading the Momo hoax

Other participants: Fire stations, and police departments, and schools.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Here are two truths and a lie. Which one is the lie?

1. Pedophiles are taking advantage of YouTube’s algorithm to spread child pornography.

2. Children and teens are being encouraged to commit suicide via footage sliced into YouTube videos.

3. Children and teens are being encouraged to commit suicide via the viral “Momo challenge,” spliced into YouTube videos and on WhatsApp.

Numbers 1 and 2 are true. It has been confirmed that pedophiles are taking advantage of YouTube’s algorithm to spread child pornography, and that some YouTube Kids videos had suicide tips spliced into them (in that case, there are corroborating screenshots and videos).

But #3, the Momo challenge? It’s fake. It’s a hoax. Not only that, it’s an old (in internet years) hoax. Per The Atlantic’s Taylor Lorenz:

The “Momo challenge” is a recurring viral hoax that has been perpetuated by local news stations and scared parents around the world. This entire cycle of shock, terror, and outrage about Momo previously took place less than a year ago: Last summer, local news outlets across the country reported that the Momo challenge was spreading among teens via WhatsApp. Previously, rumors about the challenge spread throughout Latin America and Spanish-speaking countries.

It’s not really surprising that parents are falling for it. Why wouldn’t they, considering how many horror stories we read about Facebook and YouTube that are A) true and B) often actually worse than we imagined? Even more confusingly, a couple of videos with the “Momo” figure spliced in actually were on YouTube at some point.

But the main reason parents believe the hoax is probably that local media are reporting it as fact. It is being not just spread but seemingly embraced by local news sources — especially local TV news stations, where it fits in well with their standard “Will this thing kill your child? Watch Action 4 at 11 to find out” framing. Searching on this Twitter list, local TV stations have tweeted about Momo 211 times since yesterday. And then there are stations’ Facebook pages (which, our research shows, often publish stories that will elicit engagement rather than actual local news): A Momo challenge segment by KUTV Salt Lake City has been viewed more than 22 million times and received more than 61,000 comments.

On Wednesday, YouTube issued a statement saying that it had seen “no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube.” Some of the outlets incorporated that statement into their stories (without changing the headline or much of the text). Others ignored the statement completely. Some of the local TV news stations’ stories are littered with “reportedlys,” but in other cases, the Momo challenge is presented as fact. Perhaps most maddeningly, some of the stories present the fact that the story is a hoax as just “one view” or “one side.”

In many of the stories that I’ve seen, the sources are mothers who’ve seen rumors online; young children prompted either by the reporters of the stories or by their parents; and — yikes! — local fire departments, police stations, and schools.

The Momo challenge is a fascinating example of how a fake story spreads in real time with the assistance of the U.S. mainstream media (no Russian trolls required). I set out to name and shame some of the many local TV news stations that are spreading this story. There are many more examples out there — if you want to share one, DM me.1

KBJR 6, Wisconsin

The published story asks, “is it real or is it a hoax?” but continues as if it is real:

Although there’s no proof the Momo Challenge is real, it is frightening for parents.

“Sometimes he’s left alone with his iPad when I’m cooking or in the car,” said Eau Claire mom April Curry.

Curry said she’s worried her toddler could end up seeing the Momo Challenge on the internet.

“I saw it just kind of online, and then kind of raised red flags because our son does watch some YouTube,” Curry said. “It was one of those things that kind of alerted me. I wanted to be careful of what he watched.”

Curry said since she saw the Momo Challenge online, she’s added more Disney apps on her iPad so she can have more control over what he’s watching.

ABC Tampa Bay

The challenge is to meet Momo and to do that one must follow a series of instructions, which can include harming others or yourself.

“When my friends or my family ask kids about it they immediately were like, ‘how do you know about it and then ran to them and cried,’” Jessica said….

The Momo Challenge has been linked to the death of a girl in Argentina, but none here in the United States.

KUTV News, Utah

A terrifying video circulating the web is encouraging children to kill themselves. It’s called the ‘MoMo Challenge.’ A creepy, bugged-eyed woman offers children instructions on how to take their own lives. The horrifying video has been infiltrating popular children sites like YouTube Kids.”

ABC4 News, Utah

The challenge is now starting to target children through YouTube videos such as Peppa Pig and Fortnite videos. The Momo image is being edited into the videos by hackers. That image is either giving kids messages directly or telling them to text a number through the Facebook-owned app, WhatsApp.

Then the number will send various instructions on challenges they need to complete or else their families will be hurt and they will be cursed. The various challenges range from self-harm and ultimately end with a directive to commit suicide.

Patch, Point Pleasant, New Jersey

Police also have issued warnings to parents on social media after the popular WhatsApp challenge resurfaced. A northern California mother says her family fell victim to the game, telling CBS Sacramento that her 12-year-old daughter with autism was encouraged to do dangerous things by the character. “Just another minute, she could’ve blown up my apartment, she could’ve hurt herself, other people, beyond scary,” Woods said.

Experts and charities, meanwhile, have warned that the “Momo Challenge” is nothing more than a “moral panic” spread by adults. The Samaritans and other charities say there is no evidence that the game has caused any harm, according to The Guardian.

According to a news release issued by Radnor police, the challenge is the same as you’ve heard: A scary doll figure with an ominous voice targets children’s websites such as YouTube Kids. The figure comes on the screen after the seemingly innocent video begins playing.

KAKE Wichita

The bulk of the story is an interview with a five-year-old.

When I asked him about Momo he panicked.

Terran: “I can’t tell you.”

KAKE Reporter Porsha Riley: “Why not?

Terran: “’Cause I can’t.”

KAKE Reporter Porsha Riley: “Does the video tell you not to tell?”

Terran: “Yea.”

KWCH Wichita

Daniel Timmermeyer said he researched “Momo” after his 12-year-old daughter came home talking about a scary face she heard about from a friend.

“From what I understand the videos start out playful then a few minutes in tell kids to go to the medicine cabinet and swallow as many pills as they can then turn on the oven and get inside. It also says that if you tell your parents it will come to your house and kill your family and then the person watching the video. This is one of the most disturbing things I have ever heard,” he said in an email to Eyewitness News.

Momo is a statue that was created by a Japanese artist. But the striking features of the young woman with long black hair, large bulging eyes, a wide smile and bird legs can be frightening to most who see it. It’s believed ‘Momo’ is run by hackers who are looking for personal information, but the dangerous lies in what “Momo” is asking people to do.

CBS Sacramento

Across the country, kids are reporting seeing Momo videos with the strange cartoon-like character telling kids to do dangerous things.

“The video that we believe she saw told her to turn on the stove while I was sleeping,” Woods said.

Whether hoax or not officials say it’s a teachable moment.

WFSB Wethersfield, CT

You may have heard of the “Momo Challenge.”

From WhatsApp to Facebook to even YouTube Kids, authorities say there could be suicide instructions targeting your children.

The disturbing content is unexpected and uncalled for.

It’s targeting innocent children who’re just trying to have a little fun on the internet.

ABC 6, Philadelphia

According to the Buenos Aires Times, the challenge is possibly linked to the death of a 12-year-old girl from Argentina who apparently took her own life. If confirmed by police, the girl will be the first victim of this disturbing challenge.

The challenge seems to be passing around primarily through WhatsApp and Facebook, and authorities aren’t sure of the perpetrators’ motive. It has also allegedly popped up through YouTube in Peppa Pig and Fortnite videos.

WRAL, Raleigh Durham

Officials believe the challenge has been around since 2018 but was recently embedded into certain programs viewed by children and sent on texting applications like WhatsApp.

While the challenge may be prevalent among teenagers, parents are worried that it is also affecting much younger kids.

The Spring Hope Police Department posted on Facebook Wednesday that Spring Hope Elementary School notified parents about the challenge.

WCMH, Columbus

Some are calling it an internet hoax, while others claim the challenge has been linked to teen deaths in other countries.

There are currently no confirmed deaths associated with the challenge in the U.S. — and authorities want to keep it that way.

KCRG, Iowa

The sheriff’s office said the challenge hides itself in other harmless games that kids play. The tasks end up telling kids to harm themselves or commit suicide.

“It appears to be more hype or hoax rather than reality,” the sheriff’s office said in a Facebook post.

Reports have also surfaced that the game is available on YouTube and YouTube Kids.

“If the children don’t do as they are instructed, Momo threatens to put a curse on them,” the sheriff’s office said.

“There are very few confirmed cases of self-harm or suicide that are connected to ‘Momo’, but we wanted to get this information out to parents in case this becomes popular in our area like the Tide Pod challenge, officials said.

WKRG Mobile, AL

The Momo challenge is dominating news headlines, mainly because of the dangers it poses to young children.

WKRG Mobile, AL

The Momo challenge is dominating news headlines, mainly because of the dangers it poses to young children.

WFAA Dallas

The “Momo Challenge” encourages kids to hurt themselves, and eventually, kill themselves.

KRON 4 San Francisco

The “Momo game” or “Momo challenge” gained international recognition last summer and was initially considered a hoax, quickly becoming a widespread meme. In August 2018, law enforcement investigated the influence of Momo on the death of a 12-year-old in Argentina, worrying parents globally to the potentially real dangers of the challenge.

WDIV Detroit

Dubbed the “Momo challenge,” a creepy face appears in videos on sites such as YouTube to tell children to do bad things in order to avoid being cursed. A video could seem harmless, then suddenly the face is onscreen.

The face of Momo originated from a sculpture by a Japanese artist. It was first used to communicate with people on WhatsApp and Facebook, telling them to do harmful things to themselves or others and provide photo proof.

Fox 2 Detroit

You might have heard of “The Momo Challenge.” A sinister video pops up like an ad on YouTube or the app, WhatsApp, with instructions.

“[The video] tells them things that if they ‘don’t do this challenge’ this is what will happen to them — and the Momo doll is scary,” said Dr. Sabrina Jackson. And it is popping up with increasing regularity.

Boston 25 News

According to Snopes, there have not been any verified cases of anyone actually being harmed because of the game. Snopes says the challenge is just hype and hoax than reality.

Tech expert Dave Hatter told WXIX the game is believed to have originated from Facebook, but has crossed over into WhatsApp, an online messaging app that has millions of users around the world.

“I think it’s a legitimate thing to be concerned about,” Hatter told WXIX. “As a parent, I find it disturbing. I have a 10-year-old, and I will definitely be having a conversation with him about this.”

WJTV Jackson

Many encounter this disturbing video as a”pop- up” or “suggested video” on youtube.

It alarms parents because it gives children directions for committing suicide.

It causes destruction to their houses by turning on household appliances which could harm them.

WFMZ 69 Eastern PA and Western NJ

Skeptics say there is little evidence of actual Momo messages, but there’s plenty of fear mongering spread by social media posts and sensationalized news reporting. They say no violent incident has been officially linked to the Momo messages.

Nonetheless, experts warn, cyberbullies may exploit the Momo hype to torment victims.

  1. Immersing myself in these stories just for a little while started sending me down the rabbit hole a little bit. Just because YouTube says these doesn’t exist doesn’t mean they don’t. Plus, what did YouTube mean when it said it had no “recent” evidence of Momo challenge . videos existing? Has YouTube ever been aware of the existence of these videos? And if it had been aware of them at some point, would it say so? I mean, we can’t trust the platforms. We should trust our local news sources instead. Right? ↩︎
Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Feb. 28, 2019, 3:35 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Audience & Social
PART OF A SERIES     Real News About Fake News
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow. If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure.”
“Impossible to approach the reporting the way I normally would”: How Rachel Aviv wrote that New Yorker story on Lucy Letby
“So much of the media coverage — and the trial itself — started at the point at which we’ve determined that [Lucy] Letby is an evil murderer; all her texts, notes, and movements are then viewed through that lens.”
Increasingly stress-inducing subject lines helped The Intercept surpass its fundraising goal
“We feel like we really owe it to our readers to be honest about the stakes and to let them know that we truly cannot do this work without them.”