Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The "Paracetamol Challenge" Doesn't Exist And Everyone Is An Idiot

If the first you hear about a new "craze" is the backlash against it, it's probably not actually a "craze".

A few hours ago I saw a Facebook friend post an article about the terrifying "#ParacetamolChallenge", where children are apparently daring each other to overdose on paracetamol - which is, genuinely, extremely dangerous.

But looking for more information, all I could find was the same thing: news articles from major respected newspapers and media organisations saying "apparently" and "so-called" and "dangerous new craze".

There's very little actual information or examples of this "trend". Which is surprising, if it's a trend, right?

First here's the tweet from Coatbridge Police (it's in Scotland) which all the major stories have not just quoted but embedded:

Firstly you'll note it's from 5th May - 3 weeks ago. If this was a scary new trend, like the newspapers are reporting, how come we've heard nothing about it until the last 24hrs?

Secondly, this tweet only has 25 favourites and 79 retweets (at time of writing) - despite being 3 weeks old and embedded in stories by several major news organisations.

This is no surprise - moral panics and scare stories travel without any need for the original news they're based on.

If you hear phrases like "dangerous new craze", alarm bells should ring about the accuracy of whatever is being claimed.

Having written about the "New Trend In Portland" last year, this phrase and the topic bears a number of similarities in why this story has gone viral - regardless of whether it's true or not:
  • Drugs
  • Children and Youth
  • Health
  • "Trends", memes, and power of the internet

Usually stories like "New Trend In Portland" slowly creep up the food chain of smaller Facebook pages to bigger Facebook pages, as the owner of each bigger page works out they can gain new followers and attention from sharing whatever gross/funny/terrifying story that's going around.

But with this is powerful combination of factors, it's no surprise that #ParacetamolChallenge has rocketed up the media hierarchy to major news outlets.

What we've got here is an accidental case of Brass Eye's "Cake" drug story. While paracetamol is certainly not a "made-up drug" like Cake, the story is just as made-up as the story of "Cake", which even made it into the UK Parliament.

What information do we actually have on the so-called "so-called Paracetamol Challenge"?

As some links report, it "came to light" around March - so this story is 2 months old at least.

The Scotsman reported last week on the "craze". But scrape through the vague scaremongering and there is very little to be certain of:
  • that one person, probably a child, may have been hospitalised, "apparently" from being dared to overdose on paracetamol, and
  • that a lot of people were scared by it, with East Ayrshire schools sending out notices to parents and telling them to monitor their social media use (as if parents aren't constantly encouraged to do that already)
The article also embeds this tweet by from 7th May describing the challenge - but this is not evidence, and @Robbie_Demure could just be repeating what he saw or heard. It's still just "apparently".

So what we have is "apparently" a few kids in a small part of Scotland doing something stupid and dangerous - and that incident rapidly turning into a local scare story, which has now become a global scare story.

And all it needed was the word "Challenge" stuck on the end - probably by someone completely unrelated to the original incident - to mimic the name of 2014's Ice Bucket Challenge. Because there's nothing scarier than our children repeating a trend they saw on new technology in a new and dangerous way.

What would Marilyn Manson say?

There's also this article by the Mirror where a heartbroken mother who lost her daughter to a paracetamol overdose begs young people not to do it. But the crucial thing here, is that this girl died in 2011 - nothing to do with #ParacetamolChallenge. The story is justifiably tragic but tragedy is the only reason this article is popular, not accuracy or connection with this "dangerous new craze".

Here is a heartbroken woman begging children not to take part in a craze that does not exist.

On Twitter, the only results for #ParacetamolChallenge are people screaming how awful it is and how stupid kids are. I don't know how far back you'd have to go to find an actual example of, as the Mirror article claims, children "daring each other" to abuse paracetamol "on social media networks including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram".

A quick look at Instagram shows there is no hashtag for #ParacetamolChallenge.
Instagram may have removed it - they police and manage the available search terms - but even searching #paracetamol shows nothing about this "craze".
#ParacetamolOverdose is 8th on the list of available search terms, with 41 posts, the latest being 3 weeks ago.

And to be frank I'm not sure how anyone "dares" someone else on Instagram, seeing as it's a picture site. They allow short videos, sure - but it's clear the sheer mention of "social networks [hyperlinked] including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram" is specifically designed to press the right buttons, as described in the list above, of paranoid parents and judgmental readers, ready to react first and think later.

Talking of videos, what about Youtube? Considering the Ice Bucket Challenge spread specifically and directly through Youtube videos, you'd expect in a "craze" 3+ weeks old to find some kids daring other people to take the challenge, but no, nothing.

You'd also expect people to be shouting and raging about this dangerous new trend, but there seems to be just one video so far. 5 days old with 170,000 views, "The Newest Stupid Challenge That's F$%king Teens Up - SourceFed" claims "teens from all over the world are competing with each other to see who can take the most paracetamol". Really, guys?

They include a sample video of a kid spitting into a cup - it's even the thumbnail - as if this is an example video of the #ParacetamolChallenge, like some kind of proof it's really real. But we don't see him taking anything, there's no information about him, nothing - this is a kid from anywhere doing anything.

The male reporter with the toy giraffe on his head laughably says "campus cops are paying close attention to these trends", presumably unaware that British people hardly ever call high schools "campuses" and certainly don't have police in them! Which idiot at Sourcefed gave him this line?

The best irony is the presenters go on to describe other "trends" which are even more clearly made up, including taking drugs and alcohol anally "for a longer hit".

I should stop worrying about this - I've already spent an hour writing all this out, and my point is that kids are not actually dying, which is a good thing.

That's another point - if this was a real trend, we'd have heard about more than just 1 kid getting themselves into hospital, don't you think?

But what staggers me is how massively this story has been taken up, how literally and unquestionningly everyone takes it, and how seriously angry people are getting over something which is clearly not true. React first, think later.

Even international media have picked up the story - check the links below, and the hilarious Brass Eye video satirising fear of drugs way back in 1997.

The best past though? These scare stories and moral panics are poetically ironic.

This isn't even a lie or a conspiracy people are being fed - it's a lie people are only too happy to give themselves.

And it's a panic on social media about social media, when the only real event is the panic itself.

By the way, in case it's not clear - don't ever overdose on paracetamol, even if you do want to commit suicide. It's a horrifically painful and drawn out way to go.

Now I'm off to start the #MoralPanicChallenge. Anyone got any Clarky Cat?

P.S. By total coincidence the #CharlieCharlieChallenge is taking over Twitter at exactly the same time as the Paracetamol Challenge. Incredible. I wonder if it's a marketing gimmick for the Poltergeist remake?

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