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Panic surrounding the Momo Challenge showcases YouTube’s role in the future of urban legends

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On the night of July 11, 2018, YouTuber AL3XEITOR uploaded a for his audience of nearly one million subscribers. 

In the video, the creator holds up his phone to the camera and shows viewers a scary image of a half-woman, half-bird hybrid creature displayed on the screen. The YouTuber claims he’s trying to contact this being. Numerous messages are sent. A phone call is made. Ten minutes go by. Nothing happens. This video goes on to rack up over 5.5 million views, AL3XEITOR’s most popular since he first started uploading to YouTube four years ago. Other YouTubers to their own about the beast.

The monster known as “Momo” was born. A brand new urban legend grows seemingly overnight thanks to the internet.

“The internet allows urban legends to spread instantaneously,” said Trevor Blank, an assistant professor at SUNY Potsdam and author of Slender Man Is Coming: Creepypasta and Contemporary Legends on the Internet, a book about another popular internet-made urban legend. “In the past, it would take many years for an urban legend to reach levels of notoriety.” 

The mythology surrounding Momo is made for the digital age. According to the legend, there are anonymous WhatsApp numbers allegedly floating around Facebook. Those spreading the numbers dare anyone who comes across them to make contact. If someone decides to accept the “Momo Challenge,” they’ll be greeted by a monster with bulging eyes and a horrifying emblazoned smile known as Momo. The creature will proceed to send the individual threatening messages — often in the form of challenges — which finally culminates in Momo daring that person to commit suicide.

However, anyone who watches a Momo Challenge video will find that there isn’t a single documented instance of someone messaging the monster on WhatsApp and receiving a reply. Yet, still, the Momo Challenge spread around the world.

Reports of Momo-linked teenage suicides in countries like , , and grew in the months following AL3XEITOR’s video. Around , to watch out for the messages and to keep their children far away from the Momo Challenge. 

At the same time, law enforcement officials there’s no between any confirmed suicides and the challenge. Momo-inspired deaths simply did not exist, and were nothing more than an urban legend for the internet age. Eventually, the panic surrounding Momo died off. 

“Urban legends seemingly come from out of nowhere,” says Blank. “They’re mostly believable tales purported to be true, but there never seems to be anyone that has a first hand experience of them, it’s always a friend of a friend.”

Suddenly in late February 2019, amid a series of involving children’s on the platform, the Momo Challenge re-emerged. 

Recent reports claim that inside harmless children’s shows on YouTube, such as Peppa Pig. In response to the news, YouTubers began uploading a slew of new Momo videos online. Authorities once again issued a about the suicide challenge and parents all over. 

This time around, YouTube even felt it necessary to in an attempt to debunk the hysteria. However, like most popular urban legends, it doesn’t look like Momo will be going away.

“Momo is just the logical evolution of earlier forms of folklore,” explains Blank. “There’s not been any documented cases of anyone taking the Momo Challenge and committing suicide and usually when you do hear that something like that has happened, it’s somewhere very far away and hard to verify — something that just makes it seem like it happened but you can’t really easily find out. That’s the kind of thing that happens with urban legends all the time.”

According to AL3XEITOR, his July 2018 video was the first Momo-related content uploaded to YouTube. The creator claims a viewer who said they saw the WhatsApp numbers on Facebook tipped him off about the Momo Challenge.

“The internet is an easier place for stories to circulate, both more anonymously and faster,” explained University of Georgia media studies professor Shira Chess, who wrote a completely separate book on Slender Man. “The internet allows us to pool our sources creatively and creates connections where people can find one another, co-create, or pass along stories.”

“The motivating power behind urban legends is people. The only thing that keeps folklore in circulation is its relevance to us.” adds Lynne McNeill, a folklorist at Utah State University, co-director of the Digital Folklore Project, and also co-author of Slender Man Is Coming. “Momo doesn’t have to be real to become real.”

This is where the internet steps in to blur the lines. 

“One can detach things from their context very, very easily online,” explains McNeill. 

In the case of Momo, the creature depicted in the photo that’s spreading with the WhatsApp number is nothing but a sculpture created by artist Keisuke Aisawa of the Japanese special effects company Link Factory. The picture was pulled from a Japanese Instagram user who in 2016.

“I can also falsify contexts that look official online,” continued McNeill. “If I wanted to I can photoshop a newspaper headline. I can photoshop a screen capture. Those visual authenticating factors are so much richer than what we can accomplish just by speaking.”

In 2009, Eric Knudsen posted two black-and-white images as part of a Photoshop contest on the website Something Awful, depicting a group of children with a tall, lanky, suited creature known as Slender Man.

From those incredibly realistic images, the character of Slender Man took on a life of its own, spawning a slew of creepypasta — scary fictionalized short stories made for the internet. 

“Creepypasta is the written version of found footage movies,” says McNeill. “The best creepypasta intends to replicate legends and when it gets detached from its origins, when it begins this life of its own, it’s like a big game of telephone.”

And that’s where influential YouTube creators come in. 

“Transmission of folklore relies on your faith, not in the content, but in the person sharing it with you,” says McNeill. 

With traditional urban legends, people would go out to where an event was said to take place in order to test a legend out themselves, an act known as “legend tripping.” This would further perpetuate the spread of the myth. Thanks to the internet, it has taken a new form.

“People have created their own pseudo digital legend trip through YouTube by filming themselves playing a scary game or doing a challenge of some kind that takes them out of their comfort zone,” explains Blank.

Blank points out that, in many ways, the Momo Challenge is reminiscent of a two-year-old online urban legend that also offered up an online list of tasks that eventually led to daring its victims to commit suicide, the Blue Whale Challenge. Momo and the Blue Whale Challenge share a very common trait that usually makes for a successful internet legend.

“Urban legends are projections of society’s anxieties, hopes, fears, and worries,” says Blank. “In today’s society we have societal anxiety about what our kids are doing on the internet, the amount of control and information that’s available to kids nowadays, societal fears about cyberbullying and how people are managing their mental health online, especially for kids.”

“The Momo story reflects that anxiety of what is it our kids are doing online,” continued Blank.

“In terms of digital folklore, one can certainly see this as a variant of Slender Man, YouTube challenges (Tide Pods, cinnamon, etc), and classic mythology with the siren-like bird-woman figure of Momo who lures children to their deaths,” summarizes Jeannie Thomas, Department Head of English at Utah State University and co-director of the Digital Folklore Project.

Momo is this bizarre combination of spooky tale and teen internet challenge. Mix that with online media which facilitates its spread and that’s how a new urban legend — and the resulting panic that it incites — is born.

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