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

social media investigations

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 couple of 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 rapidly. Some users with hundreds of millions of followers shared the warning far and wide.

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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 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, you can still find copycat videos, tons of news articles and a number of 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: crime, major accidents, disasters and missing children.

Because stories about threats against children, like the Momo challenge, attract even 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 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 much air time. More “traditional” news sources, such as newspapers—regardless of whether they are in print or online—are sometimes considered more reputable.

Look for supporting evidence.

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 ten 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, 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 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 information, and the rest will fall into place.

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