Remember the Tide Pod challenge? Back in 2012, these dissolvable detergent packets hit the markets and throughout the next year, poison control centers around the US reported thousands of cases of teens and children eating them.
We’re now seeing a similar thing — except instead of an internet fad, it’s being driven by a President of the United States seemingly out of his depth.
Don’t try this at home
At least part, if not most cases of people ingesting detergent pods were likely tied to Internet memes which involved a dare. Detergent poisoning cases related to this meme didn’t abate over time, and the situation got so bad that Google and Facebook had to step in and remove videos and other content related to the dare.
Things went so far that Tide had to air commercials warning people not to eat the pods. They also changed the design of the pods to make them more opaque, plastered extra warning labels on the packaging, and added a bitter-tasting chemical to the detergent itself.
Now, it’s happening again.
Search terms such as “disinfectant cure” and “drinking bleach” have been gathering millions of hits on Google searches, with Sara Fischer from Axios noting that last month it was “the most widely-discussed conspiracy” online. She adds that it’s also “the most viral” conspiracy theory related to the coronavirus outbreak, which is quite impressive considering what some people think about 5G.
While we just take it for granted that whatever the Very Stable Genius says is going to be… of debatable merit, his proposal last month that we should look into administering disinfectants “by injection inside [sic]” or “inside the lungs” took the cake. The proposal, obviously, was met with stunned expressions and outcry. And then the Internet, as it is wont to do, turned it into a meme.
I know most of us don’t actually consider memes to be valid sources of information or advice. But, as the Tide Pod challenge showed there are still those who will act on them. We’re already seeing some cases — many, in fact. Even manufacturers are taking steps to distance themselves from the idea:
“Since [the President’s suggestion], the Lysol brand has issued a disclaimer stating that the ingestion of their product in any form can be harmful or fatal,” writes Sha Be Allah for TheSource.
Memes are funny, but they aren’t innocuous
In the field of memetics (yes, that is a genuine field, and no, it doesn’t study internet jokes), memes are bits of information or behavior that self-replicate among groups or individuals by being ‘hosted’ in their minds. Think of them as being informational viruses. Our colloquial understanding of the word ‘meme’ is that of an internet joke or other type of funny content. People share memes with their friends and quote them in conversation because they make us laugh, and slowly go viral. But they are not always harmless.
The more we are exposed to an idea — even in the context of a meme — the more likely we are to find it acceptable. That’s the principle advertisement works on: we’re more likely to pick the familiar option, even if the ads that make it familiar are annoying, awful, or intrusive. The context in which we are shown the idea or object matters less than the simple fact that we see it (the familiarity principle).
In other words, if you’re shown people suggesting you eat Tide Pods on and on, it can become ‘acceptable’ on a subconscious level (something called illusory truth effect).
Similarly, if you see memes jokingly suggesting that you inject bleach to kill the virus, you slowly start to see it as acceptable. These comments can trigger a chain of events that lead to the ultimate normalization of what was previously unthinkable — and you end up with people drinking bleach.
Combine that with the fact that people usually conflate authority with competence (the appeal to authority fallacy) and that every time you see such a meme you know in the back of your mind that the idea spawned from the President (who is the highest elected authority in the country).
I don’t think these memes should be banned or deleted on-masse. I believe that’s too close to censorship for my taste and that anyone who thinks they can actually extinguish a meme (or any other idea) by banning it doesn’t know anything about humans or the Internet. I also do find pictures of Clorox cocktails to be quite funny.
But we shouldn’t underestimate the sheer impact such memes can have on people. It takes a willing and sustained effort to counteract this exposure bias. So I advise everyone to actively remind themselves “this is deadly” whenever you see such a meme or share them with friends, even if it makes you a bit of a buzzkill.
On the other hand, if you actually do defend anyone who suggests injecting disinfectants might be a solution, especially if that someone is the POTUS, you are willfully misleading yourself and others. The reason why you’d do it doesn’t matter. No, it wasn’t sarcasm, and if you believe it was, you are lying to yourself and you know it.
I don’t care what political or social agenda you have, what party you’re in or loyal to, what group of people you’re trying to gain the attention of — if you defend such suggestions, I despise you from the bottom of my heart.
“In a statement Friday [April 24], White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany did not say the president had been joking, but rather she defended that Trump had said Americans should consult with their doctors about treatment,” explained The Washington Post.
You can be on any side of the political or ideological spectrum — if you support this type of irresponsible statement that leads to people getting hurt and normalizes dangerous behavior, you are contributing to the problem.
This isn’t the time to win brownie points or votes, to stick it to the libs or show loyalty to any one party. This is the time to wake up and stare at the terrifying fact that the leader of the world’s most powerful country genuinely thought injecting bleach into your lungs could be a brilliant way to end an epidemic, and that nobody before him was smart enough to think it up. This is the time for everyone to call the president’s suggestion exactly what it is: dangerous and stupid.
Because if we don’t, it will kill people.
Author’s note, May 7th: In response to the comments saying that the President “never said that”. His exact words, as per Business Insider, were:
“And I then I see the disinfectant, where it knocks it out in one minute, and is there a way you can do something like that by injection inside, or almost a cleaning. Because you see it gets in the lungs, and it does a tremendous number on the lungs. So it’d be interesting to check that. So you’re going to have to use medical doctors, but it sounds interesting to me, so we’ll see. “