Amid wall-to-wall reporting on a novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in late March 2020, articles breathlessly claimed that a “coronavirus challenge” or “COVID-19 challenge” was spreading on platforms like TikTok and Twitter, inciting innumerable teenagers to attempt to contract the virus for internet clout.
West Virginia outlet WSAZ’s March 25 2020 “Social media challenge has teens trying to get COVID-19” followed what has become a template among local news stations about purported “social media challenges” and “teen challenges,” most of which are prima facie nonsense.
According to the article (and reporting like it), social media challenges were motivation enough to cause dangerous behavior in teenagers — in this case, licking doorknobs and floors to contract COVID-19. Inevitably, the articles begin with the outlet simply claiming that teenagers are engaging in the purported social media challenge of the day, typically without any presented evidence anyone is actually doing the thing they claim is happening:
A new social media challenge could have your child licking different public objects to possibly get the coronavirus.
The “Coronavirus Challenge” is circulating on the social media platform, TikTok and has led users to put their tongue on public toilets, doorknobs, grocery store carts and more.
It’s easy to get the impression outlets cannot easily substantiate the claims, in part because they rarely include any evidence anyone is doing a “coronavirus challenge” or “COVID-19 challenge.” In these reports, after a few sentences describing the purported parameters of the challenge (licking “different public objects to possibly get the coronavirus”) and not explaining why teenagers might want to contract COVID-19, outlets immediately quote adults who state the obvious — that it would be “stupid” to try and purposely catch a novel coronavirus amid a global pandemic:
“I’m just thinking, kids are really stupid,” Doug McGowan said. “They don’t understand the implications of what that could do to somebody. They may be immune to it or not showing signs of a problem, but they could take it home and infect their parents if they get it, and their parents could take it and infect somebody else.”
McGowan said children might think they can’t get COVID-19 because a majority of the severe cases are in older patients with preexisting conditions. He also said there is a lot of misinformation about the virus on the internet that people could believe.
“You will see one site and it will say this is good for you and you will see another site and it will say this is bad for you,” McGowan said. “You really don’t know what to believe. I try to watch the news and see what the doctor recommendations are.”
Are teens “really stupid,” or are the adults taking the claims at face value in fact behaving stupidly? No one ever seems to ask why a teenager or person of any age would want to risk suffering or death (or lick a doorknob in a public location during a pandemic), and outlets and the people they consult never seem to engage in critical thinking.
WSAZ consulted a person named Doug McGowan, who opined that young people might feel immune to COVID-19 or complications of it, citing misinformation on the internet and — ironically — badly sourced claims causing confusion. But if McGowan was a public health authority, a social media expert, or anything other than a random person off the street, WSAZ didn’t bother to explain or clarify why his position on doorknob licking during the coronavirus pandemic was newsworthy. The article just went on to quote a Dr. Sherri Young on well-known recommendations to avoid COVID-19:
“When we are doing things in our community, we have to do them very intelligently, so bring your wipes with you, bring your hand sanitizer with you,” Young said. “If you are touching things on a shelf or using that shopping cart, wipe that cart down before you go to the store.” “If you are sick, have someone else go get your groceries,” Young continued. “That is a really good moral responsibility right there, if you are sick have someone else go out and get that grocery shopping done for you.”
WSAZ added that TikTok responded with a blanket statement about removing videos potentially harmful to public health from its platform. TikTok did not validate claims that its users were actually licking public objects as part of a “coronavirus challenge” en masse:
It is a violation of our Community Guidelines, which prohibits content that encourages, promotes or glorifies dangerous challenges that might lead to injury.
Numerous outlets reported on video of a person — one person — who is seen licking a toilet seat before saying “coronavirus challenge.” That clip featured a single Instagram user and generated reams of coverage in “trending” news, but it was not anywhere close to evidence anyone but that one individual licked anything and called it a COVID-19 or coronavirus challenge:
At least one other user, a young woman, also licked a toilet seat and called it a “coronavirus challenge.” As for why either of those social media users engaged in the stunts, the second user shed light on why media outlets ought to avoid feeding claims of the sort:
In a subsequent clip, [Eva] Louise reassured her viewers that she was “totally fine” and that she has yet to be infected with Covid-19.
In a separate Instagram story, Ms Louise said that she had posted the TikTok video so as to be featured on news outlet CNN, adding that she had “cloroxed” the toilet seat prior to licking it.
She then claimed to have made US$4,000 (S$5,690) over her viral stunt.
To recap, the second person disinfected a toilet seat, licked it, and then slapped a “coronavirus challenge” label on the video. She stated outright her goal was to be featured on CNN, and further claimed that successfully gaming the media had earned her $4,000.
Like Louise, the second toilet-licking Instagrammer racked up a bit of engagement with his “coronavirus challenge” stunt. British tabloids snapped into action, publishing dire warnings about how people “could die” if they licked toilet seats — giving the one or two Instagram and TikTok user more of the engagement they craved:
Shocking videos have emerged showing influencers across different platforms performing the stunt, despite official advice urging the public to follow a variety of health measures to stop the killer pandemic’s spread. One influencer, who Metro.co.uk has chosen not to name, appears to have started the ‘challenge’ on TikTok, by licking what seems to be an airplane toilet seat while a man sings ‘its corona time’ in the background. Asked why she did it, she told Metro.co.uk: ‘I was tired of that bitch corona getting more publicity than ME. I’m the real celebrity.’
Predictably, within days, the same person (Larz) was back, claiming that he had tested positive for COVID-19 as a consequence of licking a toilet seat:
Calling the supposed “coronavirus challenge” a “craze,” the New York Post and other tabloids reported Larz’s Instagram video as if it were verified news. The Sun added Twitter commentary from Piers Morgan, and covered the unverified claim that Larz had contracted COVID-19 as if it were necessarily true:
[Larz] turned to the camera at one point and said: “coronavirus challenge.” He has reportedly since become ill.
“I think this is called karma – he’s got coronavirus,” Morgan said on Good Morning Britain, according to The Mirror. Morgan also questioned why this “moron” is being treated. “He should be in jail, not taking up a vital hospital bed,” the commentator tweeted.
Fame-hungry social media users were far from the only culprits in the spread of “coronavirus challenge” disinformation. Even as those users openly admitted their motivations were attention and money (in that order), credulous outlets reported on their TikTok and Instagram posts, throwing in a few “reportedlys” and “allegedlys” in place of actual verification of claims to further feed into the cycle — as social media platforms benefited handsomely from all the “engagement.”
The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first time “influencers” trolled the media, nor was it the first time that news organizations ginned up imaginary challenges to create an engagement frenzy. The Blue Whale challenge, the #DontJudgeMe Challenge, the “Charlie Charlie” challenge, and the Momo challenge were all widely covered when they went viral.
The Momo challenge in particular was driven by click-seeking media outlets, attracting news covering in the same way ancient urban legends (like razor blades on slides) converts folklore ostension into news:
In this example, individuals who heard and believed the referenced urban legend felt it important to “raise awareness” of the purported risk described in unfounded circulating urban legends. To do so, they falsely claimed to be party to or even be perpetrating incidents of the legend, thereby lending credence to an otherwise untrue — but popular — story. As is often the case, once a frightening urban legend reaches critical mass, people will begin to “act it out,” or else claim they participated in an event or know someone who did because they truly believed it would help others take the claims seriously.
There were also fairly harmless but widely-covered efforts like the broom challenge, and attempts to leverage virality for the greater good, like the 100 Million Masks Challenge to bolster PPE during the coronavirus pandemic. Although tabloids and figures like Piers Morgan weren’t immune to boosting “good” viral stories like the PPE-related challenge we linked, they seemed to prefer wasting airtime and engagement on a non-existent stories about teenagers’ tendencies to go out and lick things.
We’d also like to note that while numerous outlets reported that Larz got COVID-19 from licking a toilet seat, none seemed to include Centers for Disease Control information about likelihood of coronavirus transmission.
The CDC explains:
Spread from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects[:] It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.
The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.
• Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
• Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
• These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
Following on from that, it seemed the chance someone was infected from licking a toilet seat seems fairly small.
But once again, instead of reporting useful information about COVID-19, tabloids chose to focus on a debatably fake “coronavirus challenge” rumor; the CDC indicated that the virus was far less likely to be transmitted across surfaces than between people. Many reported that one toilet-licker fell ill based solely on their unreliable word, while the first “coronavirus challenge” creator said flat-out she did it to get on CNN and added that it had netted her at least USD$4,000.