In October 2021 I made this TikTok:
When the answer is out of proportion to the actual threat being offered…this internet researcher says you may be in for a moral panic. #MakeADogsDay #myfinALLYmoment #mediastudies #internetstudies #socialmedia #professor #professorsoftikt #akademia #research #research #doctorate #teuretrack
♬ it’s a scarecrow – ☕️ Mochadrift
Around that time, there was a lot of talk about “challenges” on TikTok. These are viral moves or dance moves with the intention of getting others to participate and put their own spin on the content. When I made this TikTok, the problems seemed unmanageable: “Slap the teacher”, “Fuzzy licks”, “Hellmaxxing”. The press, especially local news organizations, went crazy with articles about these calls.
I called TikTok’s reactions to these calls a moral panic because something seemed wrong. If you’re not familiar, moral panic is when the response to something is out of proportion to the actual danger. I’ve been an internet researcher for almost a decade and I can’t find any evidence that any of these problems actually exist. There was a lot of evidence about people speaking about problems or showing their alleged consequences – but no evidence of an actual problem.
Turns out I was right.
Last March, The Washington Post learned that Facebook had hired a Republican consulting firm to organize these fake calls in its smear campaign against TikTok. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, which 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 young users away from it, hopefully driving them back to Meta-owned apps.
The press played. And it only took six months for it to happen again.
In September 2022, news in the US reported a purported new TikTok trend: people cooking chicken in the cold and flu drug NyQuil. The US Food and Drug Administration issued a statement warning people not to do so, and the news exploded.
However, there was no conclusive evidence that this trend actually occurred. The Internet encyclopedia Know Your Meme dates the first mention of the so-called “Sleepy Chicken” to 2017, when it was mentioned as a joke on the 4chan forum.
There is a date here. Flash back to the infamous Tide Pod disaster of 2018. An internet scandal about eating Tide Pod laundry detergent was spreading like wildfire. In fact, according to Consumer Reports, the majority of calls to poison control centers were for children under five and seniors with dementia. Although there were isolated incidents, there was little evidence of widespread Tide Pod use due to this problem. Like “Slap the Teacher” and “Sleepy Chicken,” there were plenty of videos of people doing it, but not much video evidence.
The “Sleepy Chicken debacle” and Facebook’s TikTok smear campaign show us that not only have media producers found ways to manipulate the press on internet culture issues, but the press continues to manipulate itself. Much of the press and agencies like the FDA have made more of these supposed problems. Sleepy Chicken was an obscurity relegated to the periphery of internet forums and culture. It wasn’t even a ‘challenge’, just an obscure forum post meant to shock. Only when the FDA issued its warning – and the press covered it heavily – did the copycat nature of the “challenge” begin and attention was paid to the harmful practice.
Online is the most vital commodity we have to pay attention to. Content lives and dies by the number of people who engage with it. The press should stop giving attention for free. While there are some internet reporters who provide thorough 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 power struggles take place, whether they are platforms trying to undermine their rivals (like Meta) or isolated individuals using shock tactics to build influence. Unless people in the press (and supporting media systems like the FDA’s press offices) retain internet experts, they will continue to do more harm than any internet-related problem.
Jessica Maddox is an associate professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama.