from the demonic-chicken-lady-told-me-to dept
Social media outlets like Twitter have been rightly criticized for being comically inept when it comes to handling hate, hoaxes, and propaganda. But when conversations bubble up on how best to actually solve these issues, social media tends to get the lion’s share of the blame for Americans’ aggressive susceptibility to bullshit. In many of these conversations, Americans’ susceptibility to bullshit is somehow seen as a new phenomenon, and Twitter and Facebook are exclusively to blame for American heads getting filled with gravel and disinformation.
In reality, America’s gullibility problem goes much deeper, and it’s going to take a lot more than some Facebook wrist slaps to actually address it. Case in point: you’ve probably seen something about the “Momo challenge” hoax that’s everywhere. The short version: the hoax claims there’s a viral game making the rounds on services like WhatsApp that involves a demonic-looking chicken lady goading young children into acts of violence or even suicide. In the game, images of said bird lady supposedly press kids harder and harder until they engage in violence like some Japanese horror flick.
Except there’s nothing to the claims; and the photo being used as the cornerstone of the hoax was just an art gallery piece that first bubbled up back in 2016:
And while social media certainly played its part in circulating the hoax, the cornerstone of the spread was more traditional, brick and mortar institutions. Local news outlets, gutted over the last few decades thanks to media consolidation and budget cuts, played a huge role in the origins of the Momo hoax — with only a fraction of the criticism faced by social media outlets. Many of the earliest reports first popped up on local media outlets in Argentina; reports that were then parroted by outlets like Fox News without much in the way of original reporting or skepticism.
Ultimately the hoax spread to major news outlets that perpetuated it via “bothsideism” news coverage that failed to adequately explain that neither the game nor Momo were actually real. Take The Washington Post, for example:
“The game, which many are calling the ?Momo Challenge,? requires players to complete escalating tasks that are usually dangerous and involve self-harm. But, given the challenge?s mysterious origins and the unreliability of news reports linking it to actual harm, some question whether it?s simply another one of the many hoaxes that breed on the Internet.”
Yes! If only there were, say, journalists who were resourced to investigate this and actually make the truth clear to their giant audiences, one way or another! In the clickbait era, the truth is often dull, and therefore doesn’t sell. So a lot of outlets engage in “both sides” reporting because the chance there’s a demonic chicken lady telling kids to kill themselves makes a lot more money than debunking nonsense does.
The dysfunction was global, and was often aided with the help of celebrities, schools, and law enforcement officials. In the UK, schools warned parents that the Momo game was being “spliced” into YouTube Fortnite videos. In Ireland, the police warned the public that the game was not only real and diabolical, it was being run by hackers who are looking for personal info. And when celebrities like Kim Kardashian decided to “help,” they directed their fans’ ire toward YouTube:
“Parents please be aware and very cautious of what your child watches on YouTube and KIDS YOUTUBE. There is a thing called ?Momo? that?s instructing kids to kill themselves, turn stoves on while everyone is sleep and even threatening to kill the children if they tell their parents,? read one of the two posts Kardashian West, 38, shared along with a plea asking YouTube to ?Please help!?
Of course, YouTube certainly has other problems related to kids and perpetuating bullshit like flateartherism, but a demonic chicken goddess trying to convince kids to off themselves isn’t among them.
Yes, the internet does make it easier than ever to spread bullshit at unprecedented scale; but any notion that this is something new or exclusively the fault of social media misses the point. Hoaxes wouldn’t work if we cultivated stronger critical thinking skills (read: improved education) and focused on finding ways to finance and reward quality reporting. Human susceptibility to bullshit is not some new phenomenon, and many of the same worries about the expedited threat of disinformation plagued the early newspaper industry.
Social media isn’t blameless, but it’s also in many ways just a window into our existing dysfunction, not the exclusive origins of the dysfunction itself. Fixating exclusively on social networking lets the press, police, and the general public off the hook for our multi-generational susceptibility to a bottomless well of bullshit, be it delivered via social media, the police, educators, or your hometown newspaper.