In October 2021, I made this TikTok:
When the response is disproportionate to the actual threat offered…this internet researcher says you could be in the midst of a moral panic. #MakeADogsDay #myfinALLYmoment #mediastudies #internetstudies #socialmedia #professor #professorsoftiktok #academia #research #researchtok #phd #tenuretrack
♬ it’s a scarecrow – ☕️ Mochadrift
At that time, conversations about “challenges” on TikTok were abundant. These are viral actions or dance moves made with the intention of others participating and giving the content their own spin. At the time I created this TikTok, the challenges seemed out of control: “Slap a Teacher”, “Devious Licks”, “Hellmaxxing”.. The press, especially local news organizations, went wild with articles on these challenges.
I made this TikTok calling the reactions to these challenges moral panics because something seemed wrong. If you’re unfamiliar, a moral panic occurs when the response to something is out of all proportion to the actual threat. I’ve been searching the internet for almost a decade and haven’t found any evidence that any of these challenges actually exist. There was plenty of evidence of people while speaking about the challenges, or showing their alleged consequences – but no evidence of the actual challenge.
Turns out I was right.
Last March, the Washington Post learned that Facebook had hired a Republican consulting firm to orchestrate these false challenges in a smear campaign against TikTok. Meta, Facebook’s parent company that also owns Instagram, has struggled to retain younger users. The strategy seemed to be that by smearing its competitor, Meta could brand TikTok as dangerous and drive younger users away from it, hopefully luring them to Meta-owned apps.
The press played. And it took barely six months before it happened again.
In September 2022, news reports across the United States reported an alleged new TikTok trend: people cooking chicken in cold and flu medicine NyQuil. The US Food and Drug Administration released a statement warning people not to, and media coverage exploded.
But there has never been conclusive evidence that this trend was actually happening. The internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme dates the first mention of the so-called “Sleepy Chicken” to 2017, when it was first mentioned as a joke on the 4chan forum.
There is a story here. Go back to the infamous Tide Pod debacle in 2018. An internet challenge to eat Tide Pod laundry detergent would spread like wildfire. In fact, according to Consumer Reports, the bulk of calls to poison control centers were for children under five and seniors with dementia. Although isolated incidents occurred, there was very little evidence of widespread Tide Pod ingestion due to this challenge. Like “Slap a Teacher” and “Sleepy Chicken”, there were a plethora of videos talking about individuals doing it – but not much video evidence.
The “Sleepy Chicken debacle” and Facebook’s TikTok smear campaign show us that not only have media makers figured out how to manipulate the press on internet culture topics, but the press continues to be manipulated. Many in the press and institutions like the FDA have done more harm than these supposed challenges. Sleepy Chicken was an obscurity, relegated to the periphery of forums and internet culture. It wasn’t even a “challenge”, just an obscure message on the forum meant to shock. It wasn’t until the FDA issued its warning — and the press covered it seriously — that the copycat nature of the “challenge” began and the harmful practice gained attention.
Online, attention is the most vital commodity we have to give. Content lives and dies by the number of people who engage with it. The press needs to stop paying attention for free. While there are Internet journalists who do comprehensive and excellent coverage, many have a lot to learn to avoid being manipulated.
Social media platforms are not just spaces for interaction and content consumption. These are spaces where battles for power take place, whether it’s a platform trying to undermine their competitors (like Meta) or isolated individuals using shock tactics to bolster their influence. Unless the press people (and auxiliary media systems, like the FDA press offices) retain Internet experts, they will continue to do more harm than any Internet challenge ever could.
Jessica Madox is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media Technology at the University of Alabama.
#Journalists #continue #manipulated #internet #culture