The Momo challenge: Witch-hunts and moral panics

Caption: Despite its obvious implausibility, the legacy media easily fell for this hoax, and infected millions of parents with their moral panicking.

The so-called ?Momo Challenge? was an obvious hoax from the get-go. Yet, millions of people instantly fell for it. Moral panics have been with us since before Plato groused about ?the youth of today?. In the 50s it was comic books and rock?n?roll, in the 80s Dungeons and Dragons and Satanic child abuse. But in an era of mass communication, moral panics have acquired a new virulence. Pizzagate gripped the right like a fever-dream in spite of its blatant ridiculousness. Today, straight white males have replaced heavy metal musicians as the boogey-men du jour.

Momo is the perfect avatar for the inherent irrationality of moral panics. Quote:

You probably recognize the horrifying visage you see above?The Momo Challenge, as it’s called, reportedly encourages children and teens to commit increasingly brazen acts of self-harm and criminality. It’s also a complete and utter, laughably obvious hoax. Your kids are fine, literally nobody on the entire internet has fallen for this — except, well, countless adults, law enforcement agencies, news outlets and school districts. You know, the responsible folks.

The Momo in the picture, it should be noted, is real. The figure is not digitally generated, nor is it photoshopped. “Momo” actually exists as a static sculpture, dubbed “Mother Bird,” and was created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aisawa?It was first displayed in a Tokyo horror-art gallery back in 2016. End of quote.

So, how did this admittedly creepy sculpture morph into a silly moral panic? Quote:

Momo made her first appearance in the mainstream early last year after authorities in Argentina warned of a “WhatsApp terror game” following the suicide of a 12-year-old girl. In the following months, the rumor of “El Momo” made waves in Mexico before eventually landing on news desks here in the US that fall. By that point, school officials and local police departments were claiming that Momo was being spliced into children’s programming on YouTube and spread among WhatsApp users.

The panic even spread to the UK at the start of 2019 before hopping the pond back to the United States late last month?despite there being no confirmed cases of kids and teens even participating in this activity — much less dying from it — adults and authority figures around the country have flipped out, rushing to protect children from an online menace that doesn’t actually exist. What we have here is a full-blown moral panic. End of quote.

Only one of many, past and present. Quote:

Despite the unique nature of threat presented in each panic, this phenomenon follows a pair of basic motifs, [Chris] Ferguson explained.

“There’s this inherent protectiveness of kids,” he said. “There’s also the sense of like, kids are idiots and therefore adults have to step in and ‘do something’ — hence the idea that your teenager can simply watch a YouTube video and then suddenly want to kill themselves. It’s ridiculous if you think about if for 30 seconds but, nonetheless, this is an appealing sort of narrative?It’s a “kids today with their music and their hair” situation? End of quote.


While there is some truth to this explanation, trying to pin moral panics on old coots ignores the fact that the young are just as prone to moral panics of their own. Trump Derangement Syndrome is a moral panic that has youngsters across the United States convinced, despite all evidence, that Trump colluded with Russia, hates gay people and blacks, and is determined to imprison Muslims in concentration camps.

The particular moral panic people fall for tells us a lot about their particular prejudices, and just which nonsense they?re prepared to believe. They also tell us a lot about who is in power ? especially in the cultural sphere ? and who is afraid of losing it.

Demonising a particular group, like conservative white males, and blaming them for all society?s ills is weaponised moral panicking.

Critical thinking and calm resolution are the best inoculation against moral panics. Unfortunately, both are in very short supply in the social media age.