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How the global social media hoax ‘Momo’ turned into a viral phenomenon

(NBC News/Fort Wayne’s NBC) — If you have been around the internet for the last week, you probably noticed a torrent of YouTube Videos, Tweets, Facebook posts and even articles about the supposed “Momo Challenge.” The issue is, it is all a hoax, one that is a year late.

NBC reports rumors say the character was splicing itself into YouTube videos targeted at children, even some pre-approved by the YouTube Kids app.

The posts warned that the character would distribute harmful messages, which could result in suicide or self-harm.

Snopes reports the Momo challenge is supposedly a form of cyberbullying prevalent on platforms such as WhatsApp and YouTube, through which children receive anonymous threatening messages.

The messages allegedly compel youngsters to engage in perilous activities such as taking pills, stabbing other people, and even killing themselves. Snopes reports they are attached to an unrelated sculpture of a grinning figure with dark hair and bulging eyes.

Google officials, however, say they have seen no recent evidence of videos promoting the Momo Challenge on YouTube. There are, however, screenshots of videos and/or thumbnails with the character in them.

Security experts were quick to denounce the meme as a “social engineering scheme” in the likes of the reported “Blue Whale Challenge” that spread through the internet in 2016.

“It’s important to note that we do allow creators to discuss, report, or educate people on the Momo challenge/character on YouTube,” Julia, a representative of Google said. “We’ve seen screenshots of videos and/or thumbnails with this character in them. To clarify, it is not against our policies to include the image of the Momo character on YouTube; that being said, this image is not allowed on the YouTube Kids app and we’re putting safeguards in place to exclude it from content on YouTube Kids.”

NBC reports the purportedly dangerous meme is a variation of a widespread viral hoax that spread through the Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp in South America last July, then moved across India and several countries in Europe before reigniting in the United States.

NBC looked into Google Trends analytics and found searches for Momo spiked in Bolivia and Argentina the week of July 15. The fad faded fast, with searches near an all-time low by August 15.

The hoax moved to India, with stories warning of Momo spreading across the country the week of August 12. NBC reports searches died almost as fast as they did in South America. By October 10, searches were back to near all-time lows.

France saw a similarly rapid rise and fall in France just days after it’s prominence in India.

The United States saw the hoax just after real reports of codewords embedded with some YouTube comments on videos that helped pedophiles find content featuring young children.  YouTube has since disabled comments on most videos that feature kids.

READ MORE: YouTube suspends comments on videos of kids

NBC reports the viral posts took off a few days later. NBC News did an analysis using the Facebook metrics platform Crowdtangle and found the top post on the platform about Momo since Tuesday was a Salt Lake City CBS affiliate’s segment warning parents about Momo.

The post, originally published on Tuesday morning, was shared over 350,000 times and featured over 55,000 comments.

The story reached a fever pitch by Thursday, with national programs showing segments about the story. These segments noted the Snopes report.

Daniel Funke, who focuses on misinformation at the journalism nonprofit Poynter Institute, told NBC that Momo’s rise was like a feedback loop. He believes it is possible the proliferation of the warning could will a hoax into reality.

Funke says parents can learn from the Momo phenomenon. Specifically how fast misinformation can stir up a panic online.

“This is a classic case in which misinformers capitalize on a specific audience’s emotions to get more amplification,” Funke said. “In this case, a hoax about a suicide challenge will obviously get traction from parents and older folks.”

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