Internet Hoaxes and What They Teach Us About Using Social Media to Monitor Potential Threats

(This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine)

The “Momo” challenge is a good lesson for all of us. If it’s on the Internet it must be true, right? If it’s on the global news everywhere in the world it must be true, right? If my child’s school sends home a note with a warning about it, it must be true, right?

Not necessarily. According to The Atlantic, a few weeks ago a Twitter user posted a warning saying, “Warning! Please read, this is real,” with a screenshot of a Facebook post that read, “There is a thing called ‘Momo’ that’s instructing kids to kill themselves. INFORM EVERYONE YOU CAN.” The tweet was retweeted more than 22,000 times and it featured a screenshot of a scary face with the name Momo. It spread across the internet from local news to global news very quickly. Some users with hundreds of millions of followers put this out all over the internet.

Concerned parents all over the globe should not be worried about the Momo challenge; like many viral stories, it is a hoax that has been magnified by news stations and scared parents around the world. Why this hoax gained so much traction may be that it directly targets young children: the Momo challenge talks about children doing horrible things to themselves or people coming in to kill them. Last year there was a similar hoax from South America, claiming that Momo was targeting teens via WhatsApp.

There is no evidence to support that the Momo challenge exists. However, there are still some copycat videos, tons of news articles and several search results for the Momo challenge. This serves as a good reminder for all of us in retail loss prevention who use social media to monitor threats and events for our locations to follow a few basic steps to keep us safe.

Just because it’s in the news, even global news, doesn’t mean it’s true.

Thanks to the internet, today we can read international news just as easily as we can watch our local news television broadcast. However, this ease of access means that news sources must compete against many other sources for a smaller share of the audience’s attention, which leads to sensationalized news stories that always draw readers’ attention: local crime, accidents and disasters and missing children. Because stories about threats against children, like the Momo challenge, attract greater attention, more news sources are likely to cover them and share these stories more quickly, even without fact checking.

Because these news sources are competing for our attention, it is essential that we take one news report with a grain of salt — even better, compare it to other types of news sources. Broadcast news in particular, such as local and national TV news, tends to latch onto more sensationalized stories because they attract a lot of attention without using too much air time. More “traditional” news sources, such as newspapers, are usually more reputable, whether they are in print or online.

Look for evidence that supports what you read online.

In the past there have been major incidents, like active shooters, fires or other events, that gathered media attention, and there was almost always supporting video or photo evidence on social media.

I had personal experience with an active shooter incident from a couple of years ago. It was lunch time on the East Coast, and I received a notification from one of our many social media feeds. It read, “I see three people with guns in the building next to me.” Less than 30 seconds later an alert appeared about a 911 call of an active shooter on the West Coast. My team and I quickly started to analyze the information. We already had local TV news, police report data, 911 calls, live scanner feeds and active social media for the area saved. Within a few minutes we determined that it was a real event and that we had several stores within five miles of the threat. We also determined that the shooters had left the area and knew in what direction they were headed.

By consulting multiple sources of information, we were able to verify that the threat was real and take appropriate action in under 10 minutes to keep our field team informed and focused by providing them with real-time updates. We were even ahead of the local news by four minutes.

When your safety is not at stake, take your time.

When the threat is not immediate or risking human lives, we can take our time to verify the information. For the dozens of news sources that covered the Momo challenge, if only one of them had taken a few minutes to fact check the threat on the internet, the hoax would not have become as widespread as it did. A few moments of critical thinking can be just enough to stop a hoax from creating more panic.

The internet has changed all our lives, including our children’s. Keep in mind that everybody is a reporter, everyone has access to the same platforms to deliver information, and everyone has a high-definition camera and the computing power to create what before seemed impossible. The first reports are often wrong. Sometimes how you communicate and respond to an event is more important than the event itself. Arm your teams with good info and the rest will fall into place.


Tom’s column regularly appears on every issue of LP Magazine. To subscribe to the printed version of the magazine and enjoy other great content visit losspreventionmedia.com