‘Real Momo Videos,’ Viral Hoaxes, and Ostension

In the aftermath of the March 2019 U.S. media frenzy surrounding the Momo challenge, a number of “real Momo videos” have opportunistically surfaced and quickly racked up large share counts.

We came across several of the likely many surviving “real Momo” videos on Facebook that were posted by concerned parents, although given the nature of the Momo and the fears around Momo’s challenges, it is likely these posts will eventually be removed.

The examples we found were shared on Friday, March 1 2019. One posted that day is here, and is archived here. The second can be found as of March 5 2019 here, and is archived here. In the first post, the caption is short and to the point:

A parent finally caught MOMO on their kids device. This is some sick shit. (The persons name on the video was also sharing this just as I’m doing he did not create the video)

The second post included captioned screenshots. Lengthy accompanying commentary suggested that the media is ignoring or covering up the truth of the Momo challenge, saying that the screenshots proved otherwise:

So since the media(BBC) is lying to everyone again saying that Momo is a hoax, I decided to share my screenshots of each frame, please read on:

It may be a hoax on the What’s Up App, because I never checked that out, but I watched an episode of Peppa Pig, which YouTube has since taken down….I actually did screenshots of each frame. Momo came in the middle of the cartoon at 3:02 and was only there for 17 seconds….Momo left out at 3:19 and the cartoon resumed playing….I will be posting the screenshots on my wall and will make it public if you want to share it…..It’s very disturbing what Momo tells these children….and the fact that it’s hidden in the middle of a cartoon and if the parents weren’t watching during those short 17 seconds, they would never even see what their children were violated by….Momo actually tells them to slit their wrists and Momo won’t come see their parents in one of the frames….I’ve included this one, if your child is scared enough they may try to slit their wrists to try to protect their parents and that’s only one of the things Momo says…..It’s a very sick person that did this….

If anyone wants me to send the screenshots to them via pm I can do that, just let me know….I think the media is now trying to downplay it, to try to calm everyone down, but they are lying to everyone…..

This is how the cartoon starts, then in pops Momo at 3:02 and Momo goes out at 3:19….and the cartoon resumes….So the pictures should come out in the order of the frames hopefully when I post this….

In the set archived here, still images show a Peppa Pig cartoon. Then Momo appears to recite a sinister rhyming threat. In the video post, Momo instructs children to find a “fun sharp toy,” and to drag it lengthways across their arms. She tells them it’s the “easy and fun way” to cut themselves, to “be brave for Momo,” and if they don’t, “Momo will come get you while you sleep.”

High share counts on both posts reinforce the idea that the clips and screenshots demonstrate that the media has been lying about or trying to downplay the reality of the challenge, and further reinforces the notion that parents and schools were right to worry about Momo all along. The clip with screenshots referenced the BBC, which published at least three reports (one a video) saying that the Momo challenge was a hoax.

Rumors of the Momo challenge were not new in 2019, although that was when they really took hold in the United States. Numerous reports from mid-2018 described a “Momo challenge” was spreading on WhatsApp and Facebook, but early versions did not involve the supposed splicing of messages into children’s videos.

This boom-and-bust rumor cycle is a predictable pattern. Schools and police departments have good (but in this case, a bit misguided) intentions, urging parents to ensure that they and their children know all about the “Momo challenge.” Evidence of the purported challenge subsequently emerges, “proving” that the rumors were right all along.

What is actually occurring is a phenomenon that is well documented and well known in folklore circles as pseudo-ostension. The term “ostension” (showing or demonstrating something) is also “used by those who study folklore and urban legends to indicate real-life happenings that parallel the events told in pre-existing and well-established legends and lore” as a term specific to that genre of research.

Ostension can be observed in a slightly different form as quasi-ostension, when unrelated happenings are chalked up as related to circulating urban legends. Incidents involving purported gang initiations often fall into this category, for example. Local and global media panics are primed for examples of quasi-ostension. But Momo challenge posts are more likely to represent pseudo-ostension:

Acting, true to life or not, is a series of signs and stands for the objects (actions) it signifies. Netiher is the delusion of the magician ostension but at the most pseudo-ostension, imitation of ostension. Through a whole series of signs, the magician strives to create the illusion that the lady in the show really levitates although she does not, at the same time it is made plausible for the audience through a series of theatrical signs.

This suggests that Momo is more the face of parental fears than one of the actual myriad threats that lurks within the heart of the internet.

An example from 1991, well before social media caught on, perfectly describes pseudo-ostension in action. In 1991, Ebony magazine published a letter written by woman who claimed she was an HIV-positive woman from Dallas who was intentionally having unprotected sex with as many men as possible, followed by a local radio broadcast of a phone call from a woman who said she was the real culprit, adding “I’m doing it to all the men because it was a man that gave it to me.” This caused a huge upswing in men seeking HIV screening in the Dallas-Fort-Worth area; both the letter-writer and the caller were eventually identified:

The police also announced they had learned the identities of two women who had contributed to the discomfort and distrust generated by the C. J. story. One is a 15-year-old girl who wrote a letter to Ebony magazine, in which she claimed to be C. J. The other is a 29-year-old woman who works at a local medical school. She has been identified as the most prolific of a half-dozen callers to local broadcast news media claiming to be the avenging C. J.

Chief Hawkins said in an interview today that handwriting analysis had confirmed that the teen-ager wrote the letter. She said her motive was an attempt to raise community consciousness after losing a family member to AIDS, he said. The police are taking no action against her.

The 29-year-old woman “said it started as a joke,” Chief Hawkins said.

“She said she truly did care about people and didn’t mean for it to take the turns it did,” he said.

In this example, individuals who heard and believed the referenced urban legend felt it important to “raise awareness” of the purported risk described in unfounded circulating urban legends. To do so, they falsely claimed to be party to or even be perpetrating incidents of the legend, thereby lending credence to an otherwise untrue — but popular — story. As is often the case, once a frightening urban legend reaches critical mass, people will begin to “act it out,” or else claim they participated in an event or know someone who did because they truly believed it would help others take the claims seriously.

Here is what we know: during peak Momo angst, Momo was perhaps the most discussed topic in North America and parts of Europe. During that time, every major and minor news organization carried stories about the purported Momo challenge, which was not labeled a hoax early in the news cycle. During the frenzy, many sought out Momo videos to see what the fuss was about. New purported Momo videos appeared after that peak — tracking with a phenomenon well known to researchers of urban legends and folklore.