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The Latest Internet Hoax: 'Momo Challenge'


Now a public service announcement. The Momo challenge appears to be just a hoax. Laura Hazard Owen is a reporter at Nieman Lab. She joins us now on the line. Thanks so much for being with us.

LAURA HAZARD OWEN: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: There's been almost - I think I can fairly use the word - panic over these YouTube videos, where this disturbing-looking character, Momo, tells youngsters to harm themselves. It's not real?

OWEN: It is not real. So these videos don't exist. The hoax is that it pops up in the middle of a YouTube video that your kids are watching and induces them to join this challenge where they commit suicide, or at least, like, that's one version of...

SIMON: Yeah.

OWEN: ...The story that's going around. And YouTube says that it has no evidence of these videos existing. We have no screenshots. We have no, you know, like, video clips. There's no proof that this is a real thing. It's not a real thing.

SIMON: So is it a hoax or mass hysteria?

OWEN: I think it's a mass sort of parental panic, but it's being fueled by mainstream news organizations, which is what makes it a little different.

SIMON: Well, and it's only fair to ask. So you and I are doing an interview to emphasize that this threat is not real. Are we, at the same time, promoting this hoax?

OWEN: Possibly, just by talking about it, maybe we are. But I think that it sort of needs to be said at this point because, actually, a lot of the coverage that I'm seeing is kind of along the lines of the sort of both sides. Some say it's a hoax. You know, some say it's a viral challenge that's inducing kids to kill themselves. And it needs to be said that this is not a real thing.

SIMON: Yeah. How does this compare to other things that have caught fire in recent months? I'm thinking of, you know, the Tide Pods - whatever that was.

OWEN: I think that this is extra believable and problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that the image itself - the Momo image is memorable and is scary to a lot of people. I mean, there is this real image that is sticking in people's minds.

The second thing that's different about it is that it's true that bad actors use YouTube to prey on kids. And so even if the Momo challenge is a hoax, it fits in with that belief that YouTube is a bad place for people to be spending time.

And then finally, people feel really guilty about, you know, screen time for kids. And the guidelines are always changing. There's all this scary research out there. We don't know what it's doing to them. We, as parents, probably feel bad about how much time we're spending on our phones. And so that all plays into it.

SIMON: Laura Hazard Owen is a reporter at Nieman Lab. Thanks so much for being with us.

OWEN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.