Journalists keep getting manipulated by internet culture

In October 2021, I made this TikTok:

@drjess21

When the response is out of proportion to the actual threat offered…this internet researcher says you may be in the middle of a moral panic. #MakeADogsDay #myfinALLYmoment #mediastudies #internetstudies #socialmedia #professor #professorsoftiktok #academia #research #researchtok #phd #tenuretrack

♬ that is a scarecrow – Mochadrift

Around that time, the conversations about “challenges” on TikTok were abundant. These are viral actions or dance moves made with the intention that others will participate and put their own spin on the content. At the time I made this TikTok, the challenges seemed to be out of control: “Slap a Teacher,” “Devious Licks,” “Hellmaxxing.”. The press, particularly local news organizations, ran wild with articles on these challenges.

I made that TikTok calling out the reactions to these challenges as moral panics because something seemed amiss. If you’re unfamiliar, a moral panic is when the response to something is out of all proportion to the actual threat. I’ve been an internet researcher for almost a decade, and I wasn’t finding any evidence that any of these challenges actually existed. There was plenty of evidence of people talking about the challenges, or showing their alleged aftermaths — but no evidence of the actual challenge.

Turns out, I was right.

This past March, The Washington Post learned that Facebook had hired a Republican consulting firm to orchestrate these fake 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 get younger users off it, hopefully luring them back to Meta-owned apps.

The press got played. And it took barely six months before it happened again.

In September 2022, news reports across the United States reported on an allegedly new TikTok trend: people cooking chicken in the cold-and-flu medicine NyQuil. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement warning people not to do this, and press coverage exploded.

But there was never any conclusive evidence this trend was actually happening. The internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme dates the earliest mention of so-called “Sleepy Chicken” back to 2017, when it was first mentioned as a joke on the forum 4chan.

There’s a history here. Go back to the infamous Tide Pod debacle of 2018. An internet challenge of eating Tide Pod laundry detergent was allegedly spreading like wildfire. In reality, according to Consumer Reports, the bulk of calls to poison control centers were for children under five and elderly individuals with dementia. While isolated incidents did occur, 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 a lot of 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 topics pertaining to internet culture, but the press keeps allowing itself to be manipulated. Many in the press and institutions like the FDA have done more harm than these supposed challenges do. Sleepy Chicken was an obscurity, relegated to the periphery of internet forums and culture. It was not even a “challenge,” just an obscure forum post meant to shock. It was only when the FDA issued its warning — and the press covered it in earnest — that the copycat nature of the “challenge” began and the harmful practice was given 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 giving attention away for free. While there are some internet reporters who do thorough and excellent coverage, many have a lot to learn to avoid being manipulated.

Social media platforms aren’t just spaces for interaction and content consumption. They are spaces where battles for power play out, whether that’s a platform trying to undermine their competitors (like Meta) or isolated individuals using shock tactics to build clout. Unless people in the press (and ancillary media systems, like the press offices of the FDA) retain internet experts, they’ll continue to do more harm than any internet challenge ever could.

Jessica Maddox is an assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama.

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