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What Momo and Condom Snorting Teach Us About Internet Hoaxes

We amplify our fears and run with them.

A year ago today, a resurrected viral hoax transfixed the internet, cable news anchors, and concerned parents: the condom snorting challenge. A video circulated on Instagram and YouTube which showed young people snorting rubbers in one nostril and out the other as well as through their nasal passageways and out of their mouths. Yes, it was disgusting. 

The video elicited a chorus of shocked responses. USA Today wrote an article: “The condom snorting challenge is every parent’s worst nightmare.” Cable news anchors brought on a variety of health experts — medical doctors, residents, etc. — to explain the dangers and warn kids that the only thing that should go up their nose is oxygen. This is a real problem, all echoed. But despite the fear the video created, it was not nearly the trend it was made out to be.

The original condom snorting video surfaced online in 2006, according to Motherboard. User Tommydyhr uploaded a video to Break.com called “Condom Sucking From Nose to Mouth.” The video, no longer on Break, has now been given a new life on Know Your Meme, a website dedicated to cataloguing and archiving the most popular and obscure viral memes on the internet.

Condom snorting enjoyed some prominence on the Internet over the years, with one or two videos of wayward teens sucking prophylactics up their nasal passageways and, inevitably, immediately regretting their choice. A 2013 video by Youtuber Amber-Lynn Strong has more than two million views and was covered on prominent media sites like Buzzfeed. And then, the once-viral trend went silent until 2018, when it was resurrected, like a zombie, into relevance.

So how did that happen? In 2018, San Antonio parents and teachers were at a presentation given by a state education specialist at their local school called, “Dares, Drugs and Dangerous Teen Trends,” and the condom snorting challenge was one of the trends. A local news crew was also in attendance for the workshop. They reported on the challenge. From there, virtually every media outlet, from Fox to CBS News, picked up the story, and the hoax went from relative anonymity to the thing that, if unchecked, will kill your teenager yesterday.

Using the GDELT Television Explorer, an online archive that checks out cable and online global news and analyzes coverage of news stories and events, it’s easy to see that, through Google Analytics, coverage of the hoax spikes hard on March 18 of 2018 and then fades without a blip by April 28.

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The peak of coverage occurred during the week of April 1 to April 7. The Young Turks posted a video, ‘Do NOT Try the Condom-Snorting Challenge,” on April 2nd. CBS News aired a segment on April 3, “‘Condom Snorting Challenge’ a dangerous trend among U.S. teens,” and then, that same day, aired another segment “Dangers of the ‘condom snorting challenge.’” Women’s Health covered the story on April 2nd “Condom Snorting Challenge: What to Know,” and Inverse: “‘Condom Snorting Challenge’ Is the Latest Ridiculous Teen Craze.”

Only a few articles peppered through Google’s top search results had headlines that actually alluded to the fact that the majority of teens were not, in fact, actually snorting condoms. Esquire noted it’s mostly fake; New York Magazine mentioned that it’s “not back”. Snopes, a site dedicated to confirmation and denial of popular stories, rebutted the hoax. And then, true to form, coverage vanished. 

That it went viral again from what basically amounts to a parent-teacher conference picked up by an undiscerning media report, is unsurprising: parents are scared of the Internet. This is not without warrant. Some of these viral hoaxes actually have real-world consequences. There was the horrific incident two tween girls stabbed their friend more than a dozen times and left her for dead in the woods to appease the Slender Man, a character who was made up on an internet forum for fun. It’s difficult to discern what’s real and what’s not on the Internet, which makes it easy to understand how such hoaxes as the condom snorting lead to mass panic. The idea is close enough to the truth that parents can be scared.

This is  a real phenomenon, referred to as the “illusory truth effect.” When speaking to WIRED about internet hoaxes, Monica Bulger, a senior fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum, said: “All compelling hoaxes have a kernel of truth.” They certainly do. So, while only a few teens did snort condoms, they did receive millions of views on the videos. Somewhere, someone has snorted a condom.

The other aspect of the illusory truth effect that makes it so pernicious is that, given the way that algorithms and the Internet works, even fact-checking the hoax itself increases its exposure and clicks. That means that if someone searches “Is the condom challenge real?” on YouTube, and watches a video about it, true or not, that video would be more likely to be recommended to other viewers on YouTube. That’s just the way the algorithm works: it identifies popular videos many people are watching and commenting, and recommends them to people who look at similar videos or comment on similar things. That’s exactly what happened with the Momo challenge, a recent, oft-discussed, and then abandoned, viral hoax. It will happen again for the same reasons.

The Momo challenge was a hoax, a viral game shared on messaging apps that encouraged kids to self-harm or even commit suicide. The Momo image — of the scraggly haired woman-like figure with bulging eyes – allegedly appeared next to messages that encouraged kids to ultimately kill themselves. Weeks of coverage dominated parenting media until it was revealed that the Momo image was actually from a 2016 sculpture exhibit by artist Keisuke Aisawa. The image is indeed creepy — but it was really just a piece of art.

The videos in response to or as part of the challenge were monetized on YouTube, meaning that ads were run against them  in order to make the people who were creating the videos money. At the peak of the Momo challenge’s coverage, YouTube announced that they would be demonetizing all videos that covered the subject regardless of whether they were from CBS News or the average YouTuber.

Indeed, although there was a brief uptick in coverage of the Momo Challenge in August of 2018, things really took off on February 23rd of 2019, and coverage sharply decreased on March 2nd, the day YouTube announced it would be demonetizing their videos. By March 30, the challenge was barely covered at all.

The illusory truth effect, coupled with bad reporting and the power of algorithms, was again at work. There are real, scary things on the Internet that look a lot like the Momo Challenge. When things like Momo slither out of dark corners, parents see just another way their kid is unsafe on the internet and in the world. It’s difficult to engage with critical thinking when you worry your kid might be thinking about killing themselves for clicks on the web.

The media, with their ability to amplify fringe stories like condom snorting or, for example, Pizzagate, and blow them up into national scandals, is just as at fault here as the people who create the hoaxes. And as long as real, actual dangers on the Internet persist, parents will conceivably and understandably err on the side of caution.

The problem is not only that kids might snort condoms. The lifespan of internet hoaxes also exemplifies how fringe political movements like the alt-right and QAnon gain prominence in the mainstream media. Many reporters have covered this, including Abby Ohlheiser, who covers digital culture for The Washington Post. In a February 2018 article, Ohlheiser covered a 2016 phenomenon in which #Repealthe19th was trending on Twitter. Ohlheiser scraped thousands of Tweets to find that there were actually very few people were actually arguing that women shouldn’t have the right to vote. In fact, the signal boost came from reporters and celebrities expressing outrage and disgust at the idea while tweeting the hashtagged term themselves, therefore taking something very few people actually cared about, believed, or were fighting for, and they amplified the message.

There is no easy answer here. The problem with these hoaxes is that, although they are fake and/or harmless most of the time, the way that they operate runs parallel to the way fake news and conspiracy theories do as well. By glomming on to these misleading reports, parents become unwitting peddlers in conspiracy themselves, and make a thing that might not be real seem prevalent, scary, and an imminent threat to their lives and the lives of their children. The more often a lie is repeated, the more likely people are to believe it. For every condom snorting share, another person thought that teens really were taking the rubber to their nose. And when you can’t tell truth from fiction, preparing your own kids for critical internet literacy is no small task.

It also puts the onus on parents to think critically about what they need to worry about and what they don’t. There’s an awful lot of garbage floating around in the murky waterways of the Internet that gets sifted through and mistaken as tinder; everyone needs to do a better job sifting through it before the trash fire beacons start signaling the villagers to bear arms against monsters that don’t exist.