Micah Loewinger: You're listening to the On the Media Podcast Extra. I'm Micah Loewinger. Happy New Year. In the final weeks of 2022, Congress passed a new law aimed at America's favorite Chinese website.
Speaker 2: Republicans and Democrats uniting on something interesting, opposition to TikTok.
Speaker 3: Congress is moving forward with a bill to ban TikTok on government devices amid concerns over China collecting users' data.
Micah Loewinger: Of course, the privacy concerns underlying the bill were accompanied by some predictably panicked discourse.
Speaker 4: GOP rep Mike Gallagher is calling the app, Digital Fentanyl. Gallagher is calling for more to be done. He wants the app banned from the US entirely.
Mike Gallagher: The comparison is apt for at least two reasons. One, it's highly addictive and destructive, and we're seeing troubling data about the corrosive impact of constant social media use, particularly on young men and women here in America.
Micah Loewinger: Ever since the app became a hit, evening news here and abroad have confronted us with a never-ending stream of evidence, showing how its users are having their minds hijacked.
Speaker 6: I mean the number of hits on TikTok in the billions.
Micah Loewinger: If you need evidence that people have truly lost their minds, there's a new TikTok phenomena called the Pee Your Pants Challenge.
Speaker 7: It's a social media challenge, that's called National Shoot Up Your School Day, and encourages students to make threats of violence against their school.
Speaker 8: Remember when social media influencer Ava, who I talked to recently asked her followers to lick toilet seats or a coronavirus challenge?
Speaker 3: New details now about a new TikTok challenge that starts tomorrow. It calls for students to smack their teachers.
Micah Loewinger: There are so many breathless reports of TikTok challenges. We could spend a lifetime trying to catalog all of them. They run from very dumb to very serious, from real to overblown to completely made up. This week, we are rerunning my piece about the media's often misinformed obsession with the app. When we first aired it in May, I presented my reporting to our guest host Brandy Zadrozny.
Brandy Zadrozny: Hey Micah.
Micah Loewinger: Hey Brandy.
Brandy Zadrozny: What do you got for us?
Micah Loewinger: I've been putting together what I'm calling a taxonomy of TikTok panics. I'm going to take you through a bunch of examples of reporting, some based on true things. Others are made up or overblown. I've gotten a lot of help from reporters and researchers who cover TikTok much more closely than I do. First I want to tell you about my conversation with Taylor Lorenz, who as you know is a reporter for the Washington Post.
Taylor Lorenz: For years, I've reported on the false nature of a lot of these teen trends and how they emerge with new technologies. Videos of teenagers snorting condoms and then pulling them out through their mouths. Yes, that's right. This is a thing. Back in 2017, I wrote about how teens are actually not snorting condoms or eating Tide PODS or whatever people were saying YouTube was making kids do.
Micah Loewinger: Let's pause on the Tide PODS example for a second, which I think we can learn a lot from.
Taylor Lorenz: It was everywhere. There were like school letters sent home to my home. It was a thing.
Speaker 9: They're popping detergent PODS into their mouths and then posting the videos online.
Micah Loewinger: Much of the early hubbub was based on internet jokes and bizarre tweets. Though there were a small number of YouTube videos that got a lot of attention.
Taylor Lorenz: The local news coverage actually brings them into the consciousness. You saw people eating Tide PODS ironically because of the panic about it.
Micah Loewinger: Even accounting for that feedback loop, the Tide POD story was totally overblown. Calls to the American Association of Poison Control Centers concerning laundry detergent cases were trending down in 2017 when the story started. As the coverage spilled over into 2018, the number dropped to the lowest record since the Tide PODS were released in 2012. The vast majority of these poison calls were related to children under five, not teenagers.
Taylor Lorenz: A reminder that the amount of coverage doesn't always correlate with the size of the actual problem.
Micah Loewinger: That's what we saw in the YouTube era of moral panics, which sets us up for what we're seeing with TikTok now.
Taylor Lorenz: You started to see pretty much the same thing that happened to YouTube happen to TikTok, where it's like, "Look at what TikTok is making your children do."
Micah Loewinger: Which brings us to the first, in my taxonomy of TikTok, panics what I'm calling the coordinated panic. It all started with an infamous trend called Devious Licks.
Speaker 10: A whole new destructive TikTok craze has teens stealing and damaging property at schools.
Speaker 11: We call Devious Licks and students have been recording themselves vandalizing and stealing school property.
Speaker 12: The result is thousands of dollars in damage to schools across the Bay Area and the country, all documented for likes on TikTok.
Taylor Lorenz: It's true that kids were vandalizing their schools as kids have always done, but a lot of it was attributed to TikTok when it really shouldn't have been.
Micah Loewinger: The Devious Licks trend wasn't as well known until it was deliberately pushed to local outlets across the country by Facebook's parent company Meta, which Taylor Lorenz revealed in a bombshell scoop earlier this year.
Taylor Lorenz: What myself and my colleague Drew Harwell revealed was that Meta had actually hired Targeted Victory, a well-known Republican consulting firm to help plant negative stories about TikTok across the country in local news markets.
Micah Loewinger: Basically, Meta was tired of being the subject of constant public scrutiny, and wanted to convince parents and public officials across the country that TikTok was the real menace. Here's a sort of funny twist, rumors about Devious Licks had actually started on Facebook, not TikTok. Of course, the coordinated campaign to get local media to cover this didn't mention that.
Speaker 13: A bunch of state attorney generals have announced an investigation into TikTok and its harm on children.
Speaker 14: California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced an investigation to find out if TikTok uses special techniques to lure young users causing harm to them.
Speaker 13: Targeted Victory and Meta were very interested in pushing these negative local news stories in those specific markets in hopes of pressuring state attorney generals to take action against TikTok.
Micah Loewinger: Targeted Victory and Meta also pressured local outlets to cover the so-called Slap a Teacher Challenge.
Speaker 14: Educators beware. That's the warning from the California Teachers Association, letting them know about a potential TikTok trend.
Speaker 15: There is a list already written out. It goes month by month telling kids what to do, and film it and put it on TikTok.
Speaker 16: A challenge for the month of October, Slap a Teacher.
Micah Loewinger: Slap a Teacher hadn't started yet, but the idea was that there was a nationwide plan among teenagers to slap their teachers starting at the beginning of the month. This fake list of so-called future challenges had once again originated on Facebook where it circulated in teacher and police groups, but you wouldn't know that from the coverage.
Taylor Lorenz: There's not even a single example in these stories of a slap-a-teacher video. If a reporter just says it trended, where's the evidence? How much did it trend? Where did it trend? What made it trend?
Speaker 17: It feels like the words trend and viral can be a bit of a cheat code for journalists because they don't require much proof and it really does help punch up a story to feel more urgent.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, exactly. I think that's a really important point, and it's one that I heard from other reporters on this beat, like Ryan Broderick who writes the Garbage Day newsletter.
Ryan Broderick: I think the scale of TikTok makes it very hard to judge whether something's important on the app. The views are so high on the content that people assume that it must matter. [chuckles] A trend of like four people doing something can feel like this massive movement when in fact it doesn't matter at all.
Micah Loewinger: I want to move on from the coordinated panic stories to what I'm calling the Rumor Mill Panic. Brandy, did you hear about last year's National Rape Day?
Brandy Zadrozny: I can't believe I've missed some of these, but no, I missed that one as well.
Speaker 18: This one is triggering for me. It really is part of what pushed me into doing TikTok misinformation research in the first place.
Micah Loewinger: I called up Abby Richards, who has written a lot about how conspiracy theories spread on the platform.
Abby Richards: It's unclear exactly where this started. This idea that a big group of men were going to just go out and rape women. Which is a gross misunderstanding of how sexual violence is perpetrated because most sexual assault is committed by somebody that the victim knows, and often trusts.
Micah Loewinger: Like Slap a Teacher Day, it was unclear in the moment what the source of the concern was, but there was a rumor, and that is what set the app on fire.
Abby Richards: We really [unintelligible 00:09:13] into existence. All of the videos surrounding it were about like, "Oh, I don't know if this is true, but if it is, be careful."
Speaker 19: I don't know how many guys are going to be participating in this. Be extra careful. Get your mace, get your tasers. Don't go anywhere.
Speaker 20: I don't know whether it's a sick twisted joke or if it's a call to action. I want to remind everybody to be prepared to save your own life.
Abby Richards: Then the news coverage about it was not critical at all.
Speaker 21: It's hard to believe this is actually a thing, and I'm reporting on this to tell you about it. This morning a group of men on the popular social media app called TikTok have declared April 24th as National Rape Day. That's right, you heard me.
Micah Loewinger: When April 24th rolled around, nothing happened. A very similar phenomenon occurred later in 2021 with National School Shooting Day on December 17th.
Abby Richards: It seems you started because there was some reported video to a school administrator, and then once the school posted about it on Facebook and the local law enforcement posted about it on Facebook, it became this game of telephone of, "Just be careful. You should know."
Speaker 22: The TikTok challenge encourages students to make threats against their school, and it's supposed to happen today.
Micah Loewinger: Ultimately, some reports noted that the Department of Homeland Security and local police believed these threats were totally unfounded, but by the time December 17th rolled around, the panic had spread too far.
Speaker 23: Schools are canceled in California, Texas, Missouri, and Minnesota.
Speaker 24: I have seen a dozen kids come into the front office here at this particular school location today, feared for their lives.
Speaker 25: It's a little scary. I don't really want to go to school tomorrow. No.
Abby Richards: It seems like one of the themes here is that news reports claiming that teens are going to do something on a certain day nationwide probably isn't going to come to fruition.
Micah Loewinger: Another theme in the coverage that I've noticed is reliance on police sources, which brings us to the third in my taxonomy of TikTok panics, what I'm calling the Local Crime Panic.
Abby Richards: I call it copaganda.
Speaker 26: A new TikTok challenge has Massillon residents understandably upset.
Group: Hey, Kool-Aid.
Speaker 27: Oh, yes.
Speaker 26: Inspired by old Kool-Aid commercials being reported across the country. Massillon Police posted this warning on Facebook about young people busting through fences causing thousands of dollars in damages.
Micah Loewinger: Brandy, there were reports like this in New York, Idaho, and Ohio. Palmer Hash, a reporter for Insider reached out to TikTok and the company told her there was no evidence that videos of this so-called Kool-Aid Man challenge ever existed on the app. My best guess is that local police, who by the way are not experts in youth culture, were basing this idea off of videos of drunken adult men busting through drywall, which have been circulating online for years.
Speaker 28: Oh no. Oh no. Oh yeah. [laughs]
Micah Loewinger: By the way, I found tons of news reports about this same form of vandalism that predate TikTok by years. Here is one from 2011.
Speaker 29: James Tidwell has had it with the female fence crashers. With the help of police, he installed some hidden cameras, and look what those cameras caught. At midnight Sunday, it shows two teens body slamming the vinyl fence, taking several sections down.
Speaker 30: Oh, my God.
Speaker 29: This hidden camera actually caught another teen urinating in the neighbor's driveway, then struggling to get her pants back on before making a mad dash for the fence.
Speaker 30: Then now she's peeing. [laughs] How is this the news? [laughs] I'm sorry. It's too much.
Micah Loewinger: I think it's fair to say TikTok did not create this problem.
Abby Richards: Another thing that I'm picking up on from these examples is that TikTok because it's the hot platform, it allows journalists to put a fresh coat of paint on an old trend, intentionally or not.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, exactly. Which brings me to the last category in my taxonomy, what I'm calling the PSA Panic. It follows a common format. First, there's a frightening anecdote, which is linked to what's described as an internet trend, followed by an expert saying, "This is dangerous. Don't let your kids do this," and a conclusion that you should have a conversation with your kids about what they're doing and seeing online. Like the so-called Dry Scooping challenge, meaning eating pre-workout supplements without dissolving them in water.
Speaker 31: A Tennessee woman experiences the dangerous consequences of this whole new social media TikTok challenge.
Speaker 32: All right guys, I had a heart attack, as most of you guys know, from taking this REDCON1 TOTAL WAR--
Micah Loewinger: This was a fad prior to TikTok. I've been able to find YouTube videos and posts on fitness websites dating back to 2019, but none of the recent reports that I've seen really spell that out or tell us how common this is. Much like my last example, what's known as the Blackout Challenge.
Speaker 33: A 12-year-old boy is on life support after his parents say he may have tried a social media challenge.
Speaker 34: There's a new TikTok challenge putting teenagers at risk, so we want to talk about it. It's called the Blackout Challenge. The Blackout Challenge. This is where you hold your breath until you pass out.
Micah Loewinger: I saved this example for last because it's the most disturbing and sensitive, and I want to be clear that even just one child committing this type of self-harm is too many, but much of the recent TV coverage I've seen on this tends to focus on a couple of anecdotes without really addressing the context. Which is that the choking game, as it's sometimes called, has been around since as early as the 1930s. The CDC found that about 82 kids have died from this between 1995 and 2007, and it's definitely possible social media has supercharged those numbers since. Without good investigative journalism or more academic research, we can only speculate.
Which is one of my main points in this taxonomy. As journalists, we need to be clear about the scale of a given harm or threat and if we don't know, we need to make that clear too, but more often than not these reports just leave so much open to the imagination.
Abby Richards: I agree, Micah, but we shouldn't go easy on TikTok either. Conspiracy theories, extremist content, and misinformation, they travel extraordinarily fast on that app and TikTok hasn't made it clear that they have a great handle on tamping it down.
Speaker 35: It's the most aggressive algorithm I've ever seen when it comes to recommendations.
Micah Loewinger: Brian Brodrick.
Brian Brodrick: It's the most remixable platform I've ever seen, it's the fastest, most mobile platform I've ever seen, and so the damage that you can do with it is on a different level.
Micah Loewinger: I imagine TikTok and academics are studying these phenomena and perhaps as the National Attorney's General investigation into the platform ramps up there will be lots more discussion about the particular harms of TikTok, but as a news consumer, I think it's really important that we all take a deep breath and recognize that we've been here before.
Dr. Amy Orben: It's this cycle that seems to repeat all over again from the printing press to the radio, to video games, to smartphones and social media.
Micah Loewinger: Dr. Amy Orben leads the digital mental health program at the University of Cambridge. She studied how throughout history adults have routinely blamed new tech for undesirable behavior in kids.
Dr. Amy Orben: I actually came across one paper by a researcher called Mary Preston, who in the 1940s published a piece around children's reactions to the radio, which was just really increasing in popularity in American society. She noted that over half of the children she studied were becoming addicted to the radio, and that was having an impact on their body and their health, and they were using this addiction as an alcoholic does drink.
Micah Loewinger: WNYC's archivist, Andy Lancet was kind enough to dust off this incredible broadcast from 1947.
Speaker 36: Oh, this is so cool.
Speaker 37: Are you telling me Mrs. Barbarian, the children from the ages of 8 through 12 stay up to listen to the radio after 9:30, especially during the school week?
Mrs. Barbarian: Shocking as this may seem, Mrs. [unintelligible 00:17:55], the unfortunate fact is that there are many parents who to the detriment of the health and wellbeing of their children, do permit them to do just that.
Micah Loewinger: After the moral panic around radio, there was one about comic books in the 1950s, which was powered by some pretty familiar sensational news reports.
Speaker 38: Oh, what about the effect of these comic books on the children? All of our testimony from psychiatrists and children themselves show that it's very upsetting and it has a bad moral effect and that it is directly responsible for a substantial amount of juvenile delinquency and child crime.
Speaker 39: That's amazing.
Micah Loewinger: There are even senate hearings featuring psychiatrist Fredric Wertham, whose research isn't exactly held in high esteem nowadays.
Fredric Wertham: I hate to say that, senator, but I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comical industry. They get the children much younger, they teach them raised hatred at the age of four before they can read.
Abby Richards: Whoa.
Micah Loewinger: [laughs] Sorry, I shouldn't laugh at that.
Abby Richards: No, it's wild.
Speaker 40: Fredric Wertham wrote about comic books that the issue is, "chronic stimulation, temptation, and seduction are contributing factors to many children's maladjustments." Then only a couple of years later you have the television and certain movies like Superman being seen as exactly the same thing. We see people using a whole new technology and we see something else we really care about, and then we link the two, whether that's social media and mental health or video games and aggression.
Micah Loewinger: One big problem with this cycle says, Amy Orben, is that the technological development and public discourse tend to move way faster than the scientific community.
Dr. Amy Orben: Because scientific evidence is so slow to accumulate, we never really get to any real concrete policy outcomes until the next technology comes around that people are more concerned about and they just forget the previous technology.
Micah Loewinger: As she points out new technology is always going to be the easier scapegoat. If we put aside social media for a second, nowadays there's so many ways of explaining why young people may be behaving in a certain way, root causes. Any number of socio-economic factors maybe their parents aren't around because they're working multiple jobs, maybe they're stressed out about school shootings and having spent two-plus years of remote learning, Brandy your parent fill in the rest of the list.
Brandy Zadrozny: Why kids behave the way they do?
Micah Loewinger: Yes.
Brandy Zadrozny: Oh God, I don't know I just have the kids. I don't understand them. [laughs] None of us do but I think that's your point to look at any technology and say there's the reason that's a wild thing to do.
Micah Loewinger: Yes, exactly.
Brandy Zadrozny: Okay, let's distill it down. When listeners encounter stories about dangerous trends on TikTok, what should they look out for?
Micah Loewinger: One, are these reports giving you actual examples of the so-called trend? Two, do the journalist offer some data about how big of a trend this is? Three, if the story says young people are being harmed by this, is there evidence this is happening beyond just a couple anecdotes? Four, is this so-called trend really new? If you give it a quick Google you'll probably find out in 5 minutes.
Brandy Zadrozny: Micah, thank you very much.
Micah Loewinger: Thank you. That's it for this week's Podcast Extra, tune-in on Friday for the big show. Again, happy New Year. 2023 is going to be a pretty sweet year for OTM. We have some cool projects in the hopper that we can't wait to share with you.
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