Social media trends and challenges run from extremely stupid to life threateningly dangerous. Most of them fall into one of these categories: Completely made up and untrue, way overblown, or nothing new – rehashing something foolish that the occasional attention seeker did in an attempt to make headlines.
Students vandalizing schools? Well, that’s been happening for generations, predating any sort of social media by decades. The so-called “devious licks” trend was a manufactured trend. Slap a teacher was another scary sounding supposed trend that was way overblown.
According to an On the Media podcast episode chronicling a Taxonomy of TikTok Panics, many of these “trends” actually started on Facebook. In order to make themselves look less guilty, Facebook’s parent company, Meta, tried to make their corporate competitor TikTok the scapegoat for all things bad on social media.
We can’t blame hoaxes and urban legends on social media, though. They’ve been around forever, and some seem to appear out of nowhere and take on lives of their own. Long before the existence of social media, around 25 years ago, rumor had it that women were picking up men in bars, drugging them and stealing their kidneys to sell on the black market. It was totally false, but enough people believed this that newspapers around the country ran stories debunking it.
More recently, remember the controversy surrounding Furries? Politicians and pundits stirred their followers into a frenzy with reports that schools had begun providing kitty litter boxes to students who identified as cats.
Did anyone think about that for more than a half second and decide it was patently ridiculous and almost certainly not true? Apparently not.
For whatever it’s worth, Furries are people (kids or adults) who role play anthropomorphic characters and sometimes dress up as them for fun, kind of like those who engage in role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons. Furries don’t “identify” as an animal, and they use the same bathrooms as everyone else.
The Furries/litter box hoax, meanwhile, caused needless angst for parents, students, and school personnel. No specific examples were ever verified of schools providing kitty litter boxes for students to use as bathrooms.
One way to identify a hoax or overblown “trend” – how many specific, verified examples are there? Not “I know of an example” or “a friend knows of an example.” I mean, you verified it and saw it for yourself. No? Then assume something that sounds unbelievable is almost certainly not true.
Another sign is the TikTok or other personality saying something like, “I don’t know how true this is, but I heard something and am just passing it along, so be careful, in case National Rape Day or National School Shooting Day is actually a thing!” No, they’re not a thing. That’s not how criminals work.
Not only do politicians and media personalities fall for these hoaxes and help to circulate them, but sometimes even the police do as well. An example is the Kool-Aid man challenge, which the On the Media podcast talks about. One local police force posted a warning about youngsters busting through metal fences like the giant Kool-Aid man in TV commercials. However, there was never any evidence of a Kool-Aid Man Challenge online. Maybe drunken men sometimes try to bust through fences or drywall, but there’s no coordinated endeavor going on – just your average garden-variety idiot doing stupid stuff.
This post isn’t meant to make a judgment call about whether social media is good or bad. People spreading false rumors and amplifying lies? I don’t see how that’s in any way good.
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