The Momo Challenge: An Urban Legend or Fake News?

The Momo Challenge was an urban legend. To use more contemporary slang, it was fake news. It seems quite unlikely that any children actually watched a video featuring a wide-eyed, grinning sculpture and decided to harm themselves. Two charities in the UK, the Samaritans and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) have dismissed the hoax, and according to the Guardian, all the fuss about Momo was moral panic spread by adults. It has, at best, been an opportunity for parents to talk to their kids about the dangers of social media.

The lore of the hoax goes as follows: children are sharing videos of a creepy sculpture on social media. In the videos, the viewers and their loved ones are threatened, unless they commit violent, dangerous acts. However, there is scant evidence that any such videos even existed prior to the media picking up the story.

The hoax is not even particularly new: last year, there was a report of a 12-year old girl in Argentina committing suicide due to a “WhatsApp terror” game. Eventually, authorities in Columbia and Mexico joined in. During the transition to Mexico, “El Momo” apparently decided to switch from WhatsApp to Facebook. Reports in the United States followed in September.

This year’s wave of Momo panic began in the UK. A mother in the small town of Westhoughton posted a warning on the “Love Westhoughton” Facebook page, which later went viral. Eventually, various media outlets, school boards, and even local police forces sent out statements about the wholly nonexistent challenge. Even Kim Kardashian weighed in on the story, pressuring YouTube to remove videos of Momo: and when Kim K acts, the media cannot help but comment.

YouTube initially could not find any videos to remove, since the whole challenge was a hoax from the start. Of course, at this point, it is possible that Momo videos were made in response to all the media hype. YouTube has opted to demonetize all discussion of Momo.

The Sculpture

Although the challenge was fake, the sculpture is real. Most images omit the sculpture’s strangest feature: below its shoulders, the sculpture lacks a human-like body and instead is supported by a pair of chicken feet.

It was created by Japanese artist Keisuke Aiso. An avid fan of horror movies, he has spent the last 20 years creating horror-themed models and prosthetic limbs. In a statement to The Sun, he claims the sculpture began to rot away and had to be thrown in the trash, adding that “The children can be reassured Momo is dead – she doesn’t exist and the curse is gone.” He didn’t really consider the sculpture his best work anyway.

The work was originally titled “Mother Bird”, and is inspired by a Japanese ghost story. In the story, a woman dies during childbirth and haunts the area where she died. She appears in front of strangers cradling a baby and tries to give the baby to the stranger. But then she disappears and the baby turns to rocks and stones.

“Mother Bird” was hosted at the Vanilla Gallery in Japan in 2016, as part of a yearly exhibition about Japanese ghost stories. Normally photography is not allowed in the gallery, but “Mother Bird” had the dubious honor of being placed at the entrance. People were even allowed to pose with it.

After the recent Momo Challenge hoax, artists in the gallery have been receiving death threats written in both English and Japanese. Keisuke Aiso himself has gotten several. Other artists in Tokyo mistaken for him have also been receiving threats.

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