The internet is full of scary shit. I know this because my job requires me to check horrible and grotesque websites, to understand how bad people use the internet to manipulate others. This week, the internet went into a collective freakout over one such example: the return of Momo.
Momo is a disturbing sculpture that was made famous on “Creepypasta” forums, message boards dedicated to horror and fiction. But she is also the latest iteration of a very old class of story: the urban legend, and more specifically, the urban legend that warns parents of the dark forces that will swoop upon their children if they’re left alone in a dangerous place. It was once the woods, or the streets of an unfamiliar city. Today it’s the internet, and it’s just as infested with mythical witches and serial killers as any dark alleyway of yore.
The Momo mythology began bubbling into popular consciousness last year, when a 12-year-old killed herself in Argentina. Media coverage linked it to her communication with an online account that used the Momo image and urged her to self-harm. Since then, “others” have inserted clips of the strange-looking creature into children’s videos on YouTube, which has produced a second wave of media coverage. In a moment where the internet is besieged by all sorts of attempts to foment outrage, how should we think about this particular new horror show?
I spend my working hours studying how manipulators use media and technology to influence public conversations. I usually begin by looking for similar cases in the past, then questioning who and what is being manipulated, and then what could be done.
In this case, the Momo Challenge is not the first big scare to come from Creepypasta. Before the horrific bird-lady, there was Slender Man.
The Slender Man scare centered around the story of three young girls, one of whom was severely injured when the two others lured her to a park and stabbed her, reportedly at the behest of Slender Man. The girls were all familiar with the Slender Man storyline, a large demonic figure that abducts children, made popular as his legend traversed other platforms. Slender Man fiction is present on every platform, and I’ve seen images of his inserted in all sorts of places, including the popular game Minecraft.
The stories of Momo and Slender Man are online updates of other urban legends: collective fictions where many different permutations coexist. Anyone can participate in the co-creation of these storylines, tagging their posts with keywords like “momo challenge” or “slender man.” As researchers, we begin to worry when these figures are inserted into places not specifically serving fans of horror fiction. In these cases, platforms like YouTube or Minecraft are territories ripe for exploitation, where triggering a media spectacle can be a fun or entertaining aspect of growing the audience and inviting new writers and producers. The creation and sharing of this stuff is as old as folklore itself.
Consider Hansel and Gretel, whose parents willfully relinquished their responsibility by leaving their children alone in the woods. The kids are imprisoned by a cannibalistic witch, who lured them with a house made of candy.
For kids, YouTube is the house made of candy. Momo is the witch, laying in wait for those left unsupervised. In our modern-day twist, it’s not just the children who are unsupervised — it’s also the algorithms.
Urban legends are moral tales that tell a story about how certain groups should behave. More than a story about children being harmed, the audience being manipulated is more often the parents, who in this case leave their children in the wilds of the internet, lured in by the always-satisfying screentime. The Momo Challenge is a particular moral tale about parents leaving their children to be baby-sat by the same amoral algorithms that are fueling so many of the world’s present-day horror shows.
But as much as the internet is full of scary shit, the internet is also full of shit. Technology and moderation systems are not equipped to prevent this harm. There are good reasons why parents should practice better online decision-making, whether that means finding content on highly curated sites, or avoiding YouTube for children’s content. Parents should always opt for sites that are designed for children. Another way to deal with these problems is to purchase content or keep children on safer streaming services that avoid auto-playing unselected videos.
As a scholar Whitney Phillips points out, folklore “begins and ends with participation.” Now that the Momo is out of the bottle, the mischievous meme will continue to haunt unsupervised platforms.
Joan Donovan is the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She researches media manipulation, disinformation, and adversarial media movements that target journalists.