DOKK Library

The Platform is the Message

Authors James Grimmelmann

License CC-BY-4.0


                              James Grimmelmann*
                   CITE AS: 2 GEO. L. TECH. REV. 217 (2018)

        Facebook and YouTube have promised to take down Tide Pod
Challenge videos. Easier said than done. For one thing, on the Internet, the
line between advocacy and parody is undefined. Every meme, gif, and
video is a bit of both. For another, these platforms are structurally at war
with themselves. The same characteristics that make outrageous and
offensive content unacceptable are what make it go viral in the first place.
        The arc of the Tide Pod Challenge from The Onion to Not the
Onion is a microcosm of our modern mediascape. It illustrates how ideas
spread and mutate, how they take over platforms and jump between them,
and how they resist attempts to stamp them out. It shows why responsible
content moderation is necessary and why responsible content moderation
is impossibly hard. And it opens a window on the disturbing, demand-
driven dynamics of the Internet today, where any desire, no matter how
perverse or inarticulate, can be catered to by the invisible hand of an
algorithmic media ecosystem that has no conscious idea what it is doing.
Tide Pods are just the tip of the iceberg.

                                  I. TIDE PODS

         Let’s talk about fake news. In 2015, The Onion published an “op-
ed,” written from the perspective of a strong-willed small child, whose
title tells it all: “So Help Me God, I’m Going To Eat One Of Those
Multicolored Detergent Pods.”1

  Professor of Law, Cornell Tech and Cornell Law School. This essay was written for the
Governance and Regulation of Internet Platforms conference at the Georgetown
University Law Center on February 23, 2018. My thanks to the participants and to
Aislinn Black, Gus Andrews, Chris Peterson, and Chris Wiggins for their comments.
This essay may be freely reused under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution
4.0         International     license,
  Dylan DelMonico, So Help Me God, I’m Going to Eat One of Those Multicolored
Detergent Pods, ONION (Dec. 8, 2015, 3:00 AM),
god-i-m-going-to-eat-one-of-those-multicolo-1819585017         [
QJ6Y]. The Onion revisited the joke in 2017, see Tide Debuts New Sour Apple Detergent
Pods, ONION (Jul. 11, 2017, 3:29 PM),
apple-detergent-pods-1819580060 [].
218                GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                             Vol 2.2

        But I know you people well enough by now to understand
        you’d never give in that easily, despite the complete futility
        of it. No matter how hard you try to play this pointless little
        game of keep-away, it’s not going to change a thing. Mark
        my words: One of these days, you’re going
        to badly underestimate me. “Oh,” you’ll say, “he can only
        really walk a couple steps at a time.” Or, “Oh, he’s only got
        four teeth.” Or, “Oh, we were able to stop him right before
        he drank that bright-colored antifreeze that one time, so this
        will be easy.” Please! Without even knowing it, you’re
        playing right into my hands! Because the instant you let
        your guard down for even a split second—BOOM!—it’s a
        detergent pod right down the hatch.

        Toddlers do eat detergent pods, along with other colorful but
inedible household products like hand sanitizer and deodorant.2 But
“Dylan DelMonico,” the purported moppet of an author, did not exist, and
his profanely hyperarticulate “op-ed” was phrased in a way no actual
toddler would talk. It was funny because it juxtaposed a strong-willed
small child’s oral fixation with the stylistic conventions of a newspaper
editorial. And the “op-ed” was plausible enough to be a joke because
laundry detergent pods (which combine brightly-colored detergent and
softener inside a water-soluble plastic coating) are the kind of thing a
toddler might find attractive as potential food. But no actual toddler had
that combination of raw primal hunger for a detergent pod and coldly
rational plan to consume it.
        But a peculiar thing happened on the Internet between 2014 and
today: grownups—or at least people genuinely old enough to know
better—started eating detergent pods too. In late 2017, the “Tide Pod
Challenge” swept across enough of the Internet to draw mainstream
attention; all of a sudden, people were posting videos to YouTube of
themselves trying to eat Tide Pods.3

  Christopher Ingraham, There Were Over 12,000 Poison Control Calls for People Eating
Laundry       Pods      Last     Year,     WASH.      POST      (Jan.     16,      2018),
poison-control-calls-for-people-eating-laundry-pods-last-year/ [
  Niraj Chokshi, Yes, People Really Are Eating Tide Pods. No, It’s Not Safe., N.Y. TIMES
(Jan. 20, 2018),
[]. From here on, I will use “Tide Pods” to refer generically
to laundry detergent pods when discussing the fad. People have eaten other brands of
2018               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                                   219

        It wasn’t that The Onion was Tide Pod Mary4 and immediately
inspired people to indulge their toddlers’ desire to chow down on them.
“Dylan DelMonico’s” op-ed was neither the beginning nor the end of the
idea of eating detergent pods. As far back as 2012, Senator Chuck
Schumer held a press conference to warn that small children were eating
them, complaining, “I don’t know why they make them look so
delicious.”5 Nor did the Tide Pod Challenge take off immediately after the
        Instead, it appears that in the following years, three things
happened. First, meme culture absorbed the idea of eating Tide Pods.6
Memes became a suitable vehicle for jokes about the appeal of eating the
pods.7 Like the Onion story, these uses operate at an ironic remove. The
joke is that the Tide Pod is simultaneously attractive and repulsive; the
desire to eat one is both genuine and pretended. As with all memes,
everything is a quotation and a reference to the meme itself.8
        Second, online video culture absorbed the idea of eating Tide Pods.
In the same spirit that they filmed and posted themselves trying on new
clothing, unboxing, skydiving, speed running, or eating dirt, YouTubers
filmed themselves eating a Tide Pod—and then typically, gagging and
spitting it out.9 (Laundry detergent is disgusting as well as toxic.) Again,
this practice depends on a dual conceit: that eating a Tide Pod is appealing
enough to be worth trying and appalling enough to be worth filming.10

detergent pods, but Tide Pods are popular and famous enough that “Tide Pod” became
the trope namer.
  Schumer: Detergent Pods Are Too Cute, N.Y. DAILY NEWS (Sept. 9, 2012, 5:34 PM),
article-1.1155442 [].
  Reply       All,       Apocalypse       Soon,     GIMLET       (Jan.       18,     2018),          [
  Megan       (@littlestwayne),     TWITTER      (Dec.     11,     2017,      1:49    PM), [
  It appears that the Challenge moved quickly from pretending to eat it (see e.g.,
TheAaronSwan669, TIDE POD CHALLENGE!!!, YOUTUBE (Jan. 7, 2018), []) to
people actually eating it (see e.g., big time gang, Eating a Tide Pod, YOUTUBE (Feb. 8,
2018), [
XH2V]). Because YouTube now tries to remove actual Tide Pod Challenge videos, the
example cited was deleted while this essay was being edited for publication.
220                GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                            Vol 2.2

        Third, dare cultures absorbed the idea of eating detergent pods.
The Tide Pod Challenge (eat a Tide pod) joined the Cinnamon Challenge
(eat a spoonful of powdered cinnamon in under a minute without drinking
anything)11 and the Ice Bucket Challenge (dump a large bucket of ice
water on yourself, albeit with a charitable angle).12 It also joined the long
pre-Internet tradition of kids and teenagers daring each other to eat worms,
lie down in a mud puddle, and do other exceptionally gross things.
        All of these trends swept across the Internet in early 2018,
attracting the attention of mainstream media outlets. This drew even more
attention, which was fuel for the memetic fire, leading to more Tide Pod
tweets and videos. And thus it came to pass that the Consumer Product
Safety Commission (CPSC) tweeted “Please don't eat laundry pods;”13
Tide hired Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski to make a video telling
people not to eat Tide Pods;14 and Facebook and YouTube vowed to take
down videos of people eating Tide Pods.15

                                   II. PARODY

       Let’s talk about fake news. Here is a question to ponder. When
should Facebook and YouTube have started taking down Tide Pod
content? Surely not the original Onion story—that was parody. But surely
before the last-posted video as I write this—“Eating a tide pod” by “big
time gang” with one view (mine)16—exactly what they have pledged to
remove.17 But wait. Is “Eating a tide pod” also a parody? It’s hard to tell.

   Nancy Keates, Just a Spoonful of Cinnamon Makes the Internet Rounds, WALL ST. J.
(Mar.                  19,                2012,                 12:01              AM),
   Emily Steel, Ice Bucket Challenge: Can Lightning Strike Again?, N.Y. TIMES (Nov. 6,
strike-again.html [].
   U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC), TWITTER (Jan. 12, 2018,
5:30                PM), 
   Tide, Gronk Knows That Tide PODS® Are for DOING LAUNDRY. Nothing else.,
YOUTUBE (Jan. 12, 2018),
   Michelle Toh, Tide Pod Challenge: YouTube Is Removing “Dangerous” Videos, CNN
(Jan. 18, 2018, 8:25 AM),
challenge-video-youtube-facebook/index.html [].
   big time gang, supra note 9. The contents are what you would expect. The pod goes
into his mouth. He bites down. He makes a wincing face, and detergent dribbles out as he
spits out the rest.
   See Toh, supra note 15.
2018               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                                221

         All of these videos and all of these links—in fact, everything going
back to “Dylan DelMonico”—is both a joke and not a joke. It’s easy to
find videos of people holding up Tide Pods, sympathetically noting how
tasty they look, and then giving a finger-wagging speech about not eating
them because they’re dangerous.18 Are these sincere anti-pod-eating
public service announcements? Or are they surfing the wave of interest in
pod-eating by superficially claiming to denounce it? Both at once?19 Are
these part of the detergent-eating phenomenon (forbidden), or are they
critical commentary on it (acceptable)?20 Online culture is awash in layers
of irony; there is a sense in which there is no such thing as a pure
exemplar of eating a Tide Pod unironically or a critique of the practice that
is not also, in part, an advertisement for it.21 All one can say is that the
Tide Pod cluster of memes and practices attract attention. The controversy
only adds to the attention.
         The difficulty of distinguishing between a practice, a parody of the
practice, and a commentary on the practice is bad news for any legal
doctrines that try to distinguish among them22 and for any moderation

   See, e.g., Danica DeCosto, Please Don’t Eat Tide Pods!, YOUTUBE (Jan. 14, 2018), []. Cf.
College Humor Staff, Don’t Eat the Laundry Pods, COLLEGE HUMOR (Mar. 31, 2017),
   See, e.g., Chubbyemu, A Boy Ate 3 Laundry Pods. This Is What Happened to His
Lungs., YOUTUBE (Jan. 29, 2018),
[]. This video is part of a similarly titled series that also
includes “A Boy Ate 25 Laxative Brownies in 1 Hour. This Is What Happened to His
Kidneys.” and “A Starving Mom Suddenly Ate 40 Cookies. This Is What Happened to
Her Heart.”
   See, e.g., Robby Soave, Libertarian Banned from Facebook for Tide Pod Joke That
Mocked Liberals—Hit & Run, REASON (Jan. 24, 2018, 3:55 PM),
   Cf. Jia Tolentino, The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul, NEW YORKER (May 14,
the-rise-of-juul [] (“But everything we do is like Tide Pods.
Everyone in this generation is semi-ironically, like, We’re ready to die.”).
   Fair use in copyright law is the most obvious example: parody, critical commentary,
and news reporting receive favored treatment as “transformative” uses. See, e.g., 17
U.S.C. § 107 (“criticism, comment, [and] news reporting”); Campbell v. Acuff-Rose
Music, Inc., 510 U.S. 569, 578–81 (1994) (parody); Nunez v. Caribbean Intern. News
Corp., 235 F.3d 18, 22–23 (1st Cir. 2000) (news reporting). Trademark and false
advertising laws also draw similar distinctions, (See, e.g., Louis Vuitton Malletier v.
Haute Diggity Dog, 507 F.3d 252, 260–61 (4th Cir. 2007) (parody); 15 U.S.C. §
1125(c)(3)(A)(ii) (“parodying, criticizing, or commenting       upon”).),    as     does
defamation law. See, e.g., Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 57 (1988) (parody);
Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc. v. Hepps, 475 U.S. 767, 775 (1986) (news reporting).
222                 GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                               Vol 2.2

guidelines or ethical principles that try to draw similar distinctions.23 I
cannot think of any Tide Pod content that could not make a colorable
claim to be a transformative use; I cannot think of any Tide Pod content
that would not be at least marginally newsworthy.
        Moderators’ attempts to make these distinctions in practice often
turn into strange and unsettling inquiries about sincerity. Take the video in
which YouTube celebrity Logan Paul found a dead body in a Japanese
forest.24 He and his crew blurred out the body and focused instead on their
reactions. The 22-year-old was clearly shaken by the experience. But he
wasn’t shaken in the right kind of way,25 and a large segment of the people
who have strong opinions about such things felt that he was acting with
deep disrespect (he was) and that the whole thing was basically an attempt
to get a lot of views (it was).26 YouTube took down the video and
suspended him from its preferred ad placement program. The difference
between appropriate and offensive—between participating in a terrible
practice and condemning it—often comes down to subtleties of how
people carry and express themselves. Chelsea Manning went through a
similar firestorm at about the same time: she said she was investigating the
alt-right, her critics said she was partying with the alt-right.27
        In fact, it is far from clear that any memetic content is ever entirely
sincere or entirely ironic. The pro wrestling fandom concept of “kayfabe”
is useful here. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines it as “the fact
or convention of presenting staged performances as genuine or authentic.”

   E.g.,                Community                   Standards,                   FACEBOOK,             [
J38H] (“Sometimes people share content containing someone else's hate speech for the
purpose of raising awareness or educating others about that hate speech. When this is the
case, we expect people to clearly indicate their purpose, which helps us better understand
why they shared that content.”).
   Logan Paul, We Found a Dead Body in the Japanese Suicide Forest, LIVELEAK (Jan. 3,
2018), [
   Id. Viz., Paul seemed more concerned with documenting the experience of seeing a
dead body than with the victim’s dignity. He can’t stop grinning, and he wears a plush
Toy Story green alien hat for almost the entire fifteen-minute video. Cf Emma Kidwell,
Logan Paul (and the Internet) Need to Stop Treating Japan as Clickbait, VERGE (Jan. 11,
forest-japan [] (“Highlights of his journey [to Japan]
included a sarcastic aside that he had ‘to be careful to not disrespect the culture,’ shortly
before waving raw fish in Japanese people’s faces, dressing up like Pikachu and throwing
a plush Pokeball at random people in the street, including a police officer.”).
   See generally Apocalypse Soon, supra note 6.
   Katherine Cross, We Need to Talk About Chelsea Manning, VERGE (Feb. 7, 2018, 9:00
2018              GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                              223

But Nick Rogers gives a better explanation: it refers to “the unspoken
contract between wrestlers and spectators: We’ll present you something
clearly fake under the insistence that it’s real, and you will experience
genuine emotion.”28 Many detergent pod memes and videos partake of
kayfabe: I know that this picture of Tide Pods baked on a pizza is
revolting, and you know that I know, but I will keep up the pretense that it
looks scrumptious for the sake of the joke (which you are in on), and you
know that I will continue the pretense of deliciousness, and this shared
commitment creates the bond of the meme. Pleas not to eat Tide Pods can
be kayfabe too; they play along with the conceit with a straight face.
         Except that not everyone is in on the joke. Some teenagers did not
realize that Tide Pods are dangerous as well as disgusting; others were
pressured into eating them anyway; and some may not have realized at all
that the pods do not taste as good as they look. A crucial piece of the
joke’s premise did not reach them. They took at face value a
recommendation offered by others in a spirit of kayfabe.
         Similarly, mainstream attention to the Tide Pod meme complex
may have played a crucial role in helping it jump to actual intentional pod-
eating. As Alex Sujong Laughlin put it on Twitter, “the Tide Pod Freakout
is what happens when we report on memes like they’re real life and don’t
take into account Meme Logic™ and then make real people think it's
actually happening thereby creating what the meme was joking about to
begin with.”29 The reporting does three things. First, the extra attention
amplifies memes and accelerates their spread. Second, it bridges
communities, spreading memes to communities that are culturally and
socially remote from the ones that spawned them. And third, it loses
context: reporters may not understand memetic kayfabe or may not convey
it to their audiences.
         Another related and useful concept is the Streisand effect:
attempting to suppress information can draw attention to it.30 The effect is
clearly at work in don’t-eat-Tide-Pod videos, with the CPSC and Poison
Control Center warnings and with moral-panic-laced reporting. Teenagers

   Nick Rogers, How Wrestling Explains Alex Jones and Donald Trump, N.Y. TIMES
(Apr. 25, 2017),
jones-and-donald-trump.html []. Cf. Mike Edison, The Art
of the Heel, BAFFLER No. 36,
[]; Roland Barthes, The World of Wrestling, in
   Alex Sujong Laughlin (@AlexLaughs), TWITTER (Jan. 26, 2018, 9:21 AM),     [
   See, e.g., Sue Curry Jansen & Brian Martin, The Streisand Effect and Censorship
Backfire, 9 INT’L. J. COMM. 656 (2016).
224                GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                               Vol 2.2

in particular are susceptible to this kind of backlash and so are the Weird
Twitter ironists who enjoy finding the absurdist humor in anything.31 The
flattening of a complex and socially situated meme into a flat and
humorless message—Don’t Eat Tide Pods!—makes some people aware of
something they had no idea existed and gives others fresh meat for a new
round of kayfabe mockery.32 Announcements that YouTube and Facebook
are going to start taking down these videos will make them harder to find,
but they also serve to create demand for them. This demand can
sometimes be satisfied on these platforms despite their best efforts;
sometimes it can be satisfied elsewhere on the Internet.
        To summarize, the moderation decisions involved in something as
seemingly simple as eating Tide Pods are in fact subtle and fractally
complex. They require difficult line-drawing exercises, highly contestable
value judgments, sensitivity to radically different cultural contexts, and
untenable distinctions between sincerity and irony. But there is perhaps
something even more radical about these individual moderation decisions.
On a broader view, they may not matter very much.

                                     III. VIRALITY

         Let’s talk about fake news. Platforms constantly make moderation
decisions, but the very nature of those platforms is itself a kind of
moderation.33 It tends to promote certain kinds of content, and it is this
underlying structural tendency that creates the unending series of crises
only moderation can resolve. Even if each individual incident can be
managed by removing the most harmful content, the catastrophes will still
pile up.
         The basic dynamic is familiar—virality. This is the basic insight of
memetics: an idea that motivates people to share it will thrive and spread.
This much is universally true and has been since people were capable of
having and sharing ideas.
         Digital social media have a few characteristics that intensify this
old tendency. The first is simply speed: sharing on Facebook or Twitter is
instantaneous. A meme can go viral in a matter of hours simply because it

   See Weird Twitter, KNOW YOUR MEME,
twitter [].
   Gronk’s PSA for Tide seems to have been created, at least in part, to defuse this kind of
backlash by being kayfabe ridiculous from the start. Or maybe it was that way so that
Tide could ride the wave of publicity while superficially condemning the practice. Or
both. Welcome to the rabbit hole.
   See generally James Grimmelmann, The Virtues of Moderation, 17 YALE J.L. & TECH.
42 (2015); Kate Klonick, The New Governors: The People, Rules, and Processes
Governing Online Speech, 131 HARV. L. REV. 1598 (2018).
2018               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                                 225

loses so little time each trip around the sharing loop. A second is scale: a
single click can make a tweet or a video visible to the world. A third is
fidelity: the ten-thousandth person to retweet a gif will pass along the
same one as the first, which brings a measure of coherence to a meme.34 A
fourth is accessibility: almost anyone with Internet access can cheaply and
easily post, which means that billions of people are potential creators. And
a fifth is personalization: by presenting each user with content they are
more likely to find appealing and share, a platform helps memes achieve
critical mass in a localized community of interested users, like the
reflector around a nuclear reactor bouncing neutrons back into the
radioactive core.
        These characteristics have important knock-on effects that amplify
virality. Accessibility means that competition for attention is fierce, but
scale and fidelity mean that anyone who can break through the
background roar of millions of voices shouting, “look at me!” can reach
massive audiences. Speed means that creators can engineer content based
on observations of what goes viral and what does not. BuzzFeed is
particularly famous for data-driven choices about every detail of its
content down to how many items to put in a listicle (an odd number).35
But even the New York Times constantly A/B tests different headlines for
the same story, and essentially everyone who creates for the web has
internalized the basics of optimizing what they create so that it will spread
        Indeed, speed becomes not just a possibility but an imperative for
creators. Being early in the cascade as an idea goes viral gives you a
chance to put your spin and your brand on it; being just a few links later
dooms you to obscurity. Fads and memes shift quickly; take too long and
you miss the boat entirely. Consider the endless profusion of thinly

   This is not to say that images don’t degrade and mutate as they spread; they do. Brian
Feldman, The Triumphant Rise of the Shitpic, AWL (Dec. 17, 2014),
[]. And it’s not to say that memes aren’t remixed and
(MIT Press 2016). Even text wriggles as it spreads. Copypasta, KNOW YOUR MEME
(MAR.      11,     2018,     7:36    AM),
[]. Sharing affordances aren’t perfect, and modification is
a crucial part of participatory online culture.
   Gilad Lotan, 29 Reasons You’re Reading This Article, I ♥ DATA (July 1, 2014),
   Mark Bulik, Which Headlines Attract Most Readers?, N.Y. TIMES (June 13, 2016),
226               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                          Vol 2.2

rewritten “news” stories paraphrasing news reported elsewhere a few
hours (or sometimes) minutes ago. Twitter, of course, is where speed’s
slippery slope leads. Is it important to report on people eating Tide Pods?
The better question is whether to report on it now or risk waiting too long.
Stated that way, the answer is usually obvious.
        There is a related pressure towards extremes. “This thing is okay”
is unlikely to stand out in drawing attention, and it is unlikely to activate
the psychological impulse to respond that drives virality. “This thing is the
BEST EVER” and “This thing is the WORST EVER” are better on both
counts. When you mix speed and extremism, you get the hot take. Logan
Paul found a dead body on camera because he was wandering around with
a camera crew in a forest notorious for being a popular suicide site. He
found what he was looking for. “People eating Tide Pods” is a perfect
subject; its inherent absurdity bakes in the extremism from the beginning.
One reason that 2017 felt like such a year of bleakly comedic existential
horrors is that our media ecosystem is now hardwired to make bleakly
comedic existential horrors go viral. Unless something in that ecosystem
changes, it’s going to be 2017 all the time from now on.
        The major platforms have also engineered themselves in ways that
reinforce all of these trends. Two in particular stand out. One is that the
attention economy is an economy: when a platform directs content to
viewers, its creator (or in many cases, its uploader) is in a position to make
money. Sometimes this happens because the platform itself pays them,
usually based on advertising revenue (YouTube is a prime example).
Sometimes it happens because someone else will pay them based on the
attention, often but not always by selling ads on the creator’s own site.
Therefore, there is a nearly linear relationship between the spread of
content and its monetary value to the creator. Creators will optimize for
whatever gets shared most readily on platforms.37 For example, this is why
cooking video creators began designing slick no-sound-needed tutorials
for easy sharing on Facebook in the days when Facebook prioritized video
but didn’t autoplay audio.38 It is also why Logan Paul was back at his old
tricks within a few weeks: tasering dead rats and making Tide Pod jokes.39

   See e.g., Joe Veix, Your Pretty Face is Going to Sell, FIELD NOTES (Apr. 9, 2018),
   Tanya Basu, How Recipe Videos Colonized Your Facebook Feed, NEW YORKER (May
19, 2016),
your-facebook-feed [].
   Abby Ohlheiser, YouTuber Logan Paul Promised to Change After His Suicide Forest
Stunt. Then, He Tasered a Dead Rat., WASH. POST (Feb. 9, 2018),
2018              GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                               227

He achieved YouTube superstardom by fashioning an identity based on
pushing the bounds of taste; asking him to behave like a decent human
being is like asking a terrier to calm down.
         The second trend is that since the platforms are primarily
advertising driven, they optimize their designs to maximize advertising
revenue.40 This typically means maximizing “engagement”: staying on the
site for as long as possible, continuing to read and watch. And this, in turn,
means that platforms are carefully and constantly watching to see which
content beats out its rivals in drawing attention. They aren’t neutral in this;
platforms prioritize and promote the content most likely to grab users by
the lapels. Facebook shuffles its News Feed; Twitter lists “Trends for
you”; YouTube suggests related videos and will even autoplay the next
video after the current one ends. Unsurprisingly, platforms tend to
promote content that already has the characteristics that promote virality—
especially topicality (the ex post version of speed) and extremism. With
trending topics, this is explicit: these are topics that are already going viral
(perhaps on a more limited scale). But even the Facebook News Feed and
YouTube Suggested Videos are attempts to predict what will go viral most
successfully in a user’s network and amplify it with that user.
         Some of what spreads this way makes Tide Pods look tame. In
November of 2017, observers noted that YouTube’s recommendation
engine led from clips of popular kids’ shows like Peppa Pig and PAW
Patrol to clips in which the characters from those shows are tortured and
killed.41 The logic underlying the recommendations is easy to reconstruct.
As creepy as these videos are, their very unpleasantness can be weirdly
compelling in the same way that the idea of eating a Tide Pod can be.
Peppa Pig drinking bleach falls into the uncanny valley of children’s
entertainment: neither innocent enough that parents can breathe easy nor
so overwhelmingly repulsive that kids immediately turn it off. And once a
few hardy trailblazers have shown an interest in head swaps or finger
families, YouTube “learns” that this connection is worth promoting, and

rat/?utm_term=.a98496c18983 [].
   I do not mean to lay all the blame at the feet of ad-driven business models; other
business models can have similar effects, but the details and the mediating forces are
   James Bridle, Something Is Wrong on the Internet, MEDIUM (Nov. 6, 2017),
[]; Sapna Maheshwari, On YouTube Kids, Startling Videos
Slip        Past     Filters,      N.Y.       TIMES         (Nov.       4,      2017),
[]. First, note that many of these clips can make strong and
obvious arguments to be parodies. Then ask what “parody” means to a four-year-old.
228              GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                        Vol 2.2

so it invites other kids to take a field trip to the Garden of Earthly
        Put all of this together—virality, speed, extremism, monetization,
and algorithmic recommendation—and you have a system that is
optimized for automated content creation. Yes, there are humans writing
bespoke essays and filming individualized videos. But there are also bots
churning out content to be pushed onto platforms in an all-out war for
attention. They run millions of experiments to observe what gets seen and
what doesn’t, what gets promoted and what doesn’t, what gets taken down
and what doesn’t.42 Then when they detect any quirk in what people are
interested in now—or any quirk in what the platforms’ recommendation
engines think people are interested in now—they flood into the breach
with thousands or even millions of algorithmically generated pieces of
content. Using long lists of popular keywords and popular genres, they
remix endless variations on a theme. This is spam, adapted to the age of
social media, with one remarkable twist: there is no need to sell people
something else once you have a bit of their attention. Their attention itself
is the commodity; you can sell it back to the platform’s ad engine and let
someone else worry about how to make a buck off an ad running against
Peppa Pig crying at the dentist.43
        Of course, the ability to run a video-creation farm itself depends on
a substrate of infrastructure. You need stock videos (or 3D models and
video software), music (or audio software), a computing platform,
powerful analytics, payment systems, and more. One thing that the cloud-
computing age is very good at is enabling anyone with an idea to build it
out in a high-quality way and share it with the world. This means we get
remarkable labors of love even from individual creators: beautiful movies
and immersive video games. But it also means that it is just as easy to set
up a business selling fake Twitter followers44 or to upload the same
infringing movie again and again with different mutations to fool the
ContentID filters.

   See, e.g., Jonathan Albright, FakeTube: AI-Generated News on YouTube, MEDIUM
(Jan. 17, 2017),
233ad46849f9 []; Tarleton Gillespie, Algorithmically
Recognizable: Santorum’s Google Problem, and Google’s Santorum Problem, 20 INFO.,
COMM. & SOC. 63 (2017).
OUR HEADS (2016).
   Nicholas Confessore et al., The Follower Factory, N.Y. TIMES (Jan. 27, 2018),
2018              GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                               229

        It even extends to the physical world. The journalist Alexis
Madrigal, in a remarkable article building on a remarkable essay by the
artist Jenny Odell, exposed a world of Potemkin stores.45 Set up a
storefront on Shopify. Pick a name and brand by mining Facebook’s
Audience Insight (lions are popular, so call it Lions Jewel). Use Google
Image Search to grab some images of lions to decorate the site. Use the
Oberlo plugin to pull items from Aliexpress. (Which items? Use reverse
image search on other Potemkin web stores to figure out which ones are
selling.) And get customers by paying Instagram influencers to run ads.
Now when someone buys an item from Lions Jewel, a Chinese
manufacturer will drop-ship it direct to the customer. As Madrigal puts it,
“It was, technically, the item I ordered, only shabbier than I expected in
every aspect.” We’re not far off—if we’re not there already—from the day
when this entire process, start to finish, is as automated as everything else,
and the only question is whether to ask the algorithm to make you 100
stores or 100,000.
        I have gone on this detour into e-commerce because it illustrates a
fundamental truth of how the platform-mediated attention economy now
functions. The system is exquisitely tuned to detect any existing demand
and bring content into existence to satisfy it. To be clear, this is not
“demand” in the neoclassical economic sense of the rational preferences of
an autonomous actor. Instead, call it “viral demand”: anything that anyone
can be seduced or tricked into paying attention to.46 The Internet is now a
giant machine for creating whatever shiny things are necessary to catch
people’s eyes. The consequences can be perverse.

        The trouble with the internet, [Evan] Williams says, is that
        it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and
        see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The

   Jenny Odell, There’s No Such Thing as a Free Watch (Aug. 18, 2017),
[]; Alexis Madrigal, The Strange Brands in Your
Instagram            Feed,         ATLANTIC            (Jan.        10,         2018),
instagram-feed/550136/ []; Reply All, The World’s Most
Expensive Free Watch, GIMLET (Mar. 1, 2018),
all/117-the-worlds-most-expensive-free-watch [].
   Cf. John Mahoney, A Complete Taxonomy of Internet Chum, AWL (June 4, 2015),
[] (discussing the attention-getting garbage that fills up
websites’ related-stories boxes).
230                GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                             Vol 2.2

        internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is
        asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.47

        Recommendation engines may only “supply” car crashes in the
sense of suggesting that since you looked at that last one, here’s another
one you may be interested in watching. But in a world where attention is
money and platforms find and focus attention, that’s enough to incentivize
others to go out and crash cars. Complaining about it doesn’t help, either.
Hate clicks are still clicks. The new virality machines can see inside your
head, and they will make whatever it is you can’t help thinking about. The
Stay Puft Marshmallow Man comes for us all.

                                  IV. FAKE NEWS

       Let’s talk about fake news. “Fake news” in its original, narrow,
technical sense meant entirely fabricated stories designed for consumption
on social media and passed off as true to satisfy highly partisan
audiences.48 And it was a real thing. There really were Macedonian
teenagers writing stories claiming the Pope had forbidden Catholics from
voting for Clinton.49 BuzzFeed found them, and Facebook and Google
could too if they tried.50 There is an indisputable core of sites that exist to

   David Streitfeld, ‘The Internet Is Broken’: @ev Is Trying to Salvage It, N.Y. TIMES
(May 20, 2017),
medium-twitter-internet.html []. Cf. SARAH JEONG, THE
   Even the umbrella term, as vague and ambiguous as it is, is helpful in pointing to a
related set of problems of accuracy and legitimacy in news reporting. See generally
Claire Wardle, Fake News. It’s Complicated, FIRST DRAFT (Feb. 16, 2017),        []
(discussing different senses of the term); MARK VERSTRAETE ET AL., IDENTIFYING AND
COUNTERING            FAKE        NEWS         (Univ.       of        Ariz.        2017), [
27DX] (presenting similar taxonomy).
   Craig Silverman & Lawrence Alexander, How Teens in The Balkans Are Duping
Trump Supporters With Fake News, BUZZFEED (Nov. 3, 2016, 7:02 PM),
trump-misinfo []; Samanth Subramanian, Fake: Inside the
Macedonian         Fake     News      Complex,      WIRED       (Feb.       15,    2017),         [
   Charlie Warzel, Why Can Everyone Spot Fake News But YouTube, Facebook and
Google?,           BUZZFEED         (Feb.       22,       2018,          7:40       PM),
tech-companies [].
2018               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                                  231

spread indisputable lies, and the only reasonable editorial line is to keep
them out of any news engine you want to have a veneer of credibility.
        But two things about fake news, even in this narrow and technical
sense, should give us pause. The first is that identifying and excluding
fake news is a hard line-drawing problem, just as hard as the line-drawing
problem for eating Tide Pods.51 Take parody. The first refuge of fake
newsmongers is the old fallback of fortune-tellers: for entertainment
purposes only. But as we have seen, not everyone is in on the joke. The
existence of Reddit’s r/nottheonion (real life mistaken for The Onion)52
and Literally Unbelievable (The Onion mistaken for real life)53 suggests
that even The Onion is frequently indistinguishable from reality. And the
kayfabe spirit of partisanship—particularly strong on the alt-right but also
visible in the dirtbag left—is particularly hard for outsiders to parse. Take
Edgar Welch, who showed up at Comet Ping Pong with an assault rifle
under the mistaken impression that it was the headquarters for a child
pornography and human trafficking ring run by Democratic Party
officials.54 Pizzagate was simultaneously a real conspiracy theory, a
gleeful masquerade of a conspiracy theory, and a disparaging meme about
conspiracy theories—and unfortunately the latter two fed the first.55
        For many on the alt-right, this ambiguity is politically potent.
“Can’t you take a joke” is a favorite tease of bullies and trolls; it dodges

   danah boyd, Google and Facebook Can’t Just Make Fake News Disappear, WIRED
(Mar. 27, 2017, 12 AM),
just-make-fake-news-disappear/ []; ROBYN CAPLAN ET AL.,
Society 2018) (discussing definitional issues). To some extent, it may not matter whether
a news article is “real” or “fake.” See Matt Haughey, Even If It’s Fake, It’s Real,
NIEMANLAB (Dec. 17, 2013),
real/ []; Michael Sippey, Even If It’s Fake It’s Real (Nov. 24,
   Not the Onion, REDDIT, [
   LITERALLY       UNBELIEVABLE,,   available    at
   See Amanda Robb, Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal, ROLLING STONE (Nov. 16,
scandal-w511904 [].
   Reply      All,    Voyage     into    Pizzagate,      GIMLET      (Dec.   8,     2016),
[]; Whitney Phillips & Ryan M. Milner, The Internet Law
That Explains Why 2016 Was So Terrible, SLATE (Dec. 28, 2016, 9:30 AM),
_2016_was_so_terrible.html [].
232               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                            Vol 2.2

responsibility without undoing the speech. (Of course, “You’re never ‘just
joking.’”)56 To quote Andrew Anglin of the Daily Stormer:

        The tone of the site should be light . . . . The
        unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking
        or not . . . . This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want
        to gas kikes. But that’s neither here nor there.”57

        It is also a way of perplexing automated content filters (and the
low-wage, high-volume human moderators who are expected to emulate
automated filters).58 Disentangling the joke requires too much social
context. Fake news is always going to live on that line, even without
getting into problems of fact versus value, definition versus interpretation,
and so on.59
        The second deeply troubling thing about fake news is, that like
Alexis Madrigal’s camel-hair coat or Peppa Pig torture videos, it comes
into existence to meet viral demand.60 Studies have found that fake news
did not seem to be particularly influential in the 2016 election.61 Rather, it

   Jason P. Steed (@5thCircAppeals), TWITTER (Aug. 9, 2016, 12:42 PM), [
   Ashley Feinberg, This Is the Daily Stormer’s Playbook, HUFFINGTON POST (Dec. 13,
2017, 4:00 PM),
guide_us_5a2ece19e4b0ce3b344492f2 [].
   See, e.g., Adrian Chen, The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings out of Your
Facebook          Feed,     WIRED           (Oct.      23,      2014,     6:30    AM), [].
   See generally Nabiha Syed, Real Talk About Fake News: Towards a Better Theory for
Platform Governance, 127 YALE L.J. FORUM 337 (2017).
   See, e.g., Craig Silverman, This Pro-Trump Website Run From Eastern Europe May Be
the Worst Thing on the Internet, BUZZFEED (Apr. 23, 2017, 8:01 PM),
[]. Cf. Kevin Roose, YouTube’s Rapid Response Partisans
Game        the     News    of     Tragedy,       N.Y.     TIMES    (Nov.    8,  2017),
[] (describing how partisan posters shape YouTube
coverage of breaking news by posting unverified or fabricated stories quickly); Andrew
Higgins et al., Inside a Fake News Sausage Factory: ‘This Is All About Income,’ N.Y.
TIMES (Nov. 25, 2016),
donald-trump-hillary-clinton-georgia.html [] .
   E.g., Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, & Jason Reifler, Selective Exposure to
Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News During the 2016 U.S.
Presidential Campaign, J. OF ELECTIONS, PUB. OP., & PARTIES (draft Jan. 9, 2018)
[]; Hunt Allcott & Matthew Gentzkow, Social Media and
Fake News in the 2016 Election, 31 J. ECON. PERSP. 211 (2017).
2018               GEORGETOWN LAW TECHNOLOGY REVIEW                                  233

was a kind of captivating entertainment for people already disposed to be
interested: you can’t stop clicking on the outrages. Are they true?
“Kayfabe isn’t about factual verifiability; it’s about emotional fidelity.”62
        And that demand—for a view on the world that is presented as true
while being emotionally faithful to partisan identity—is being satisfied by
much more than just fake news. Fox News and Slate are both feeding their
readers stories that have the ring of novelty while being consistent with the
underlying worldviews their readers expect (respectively, “Trump Good”
and “Trump Bad”).63 Logan Paul pretends to give a desperately gasping
fish CPR because he has made himself into the kind of person who does
the kind of thing his viewers enjoy watching. All of them do so in an
intensely competitive media landscape driven by dynamics of virality.64 If
Logan Paul stops acting dumb and outré, his viewers are going to find
some other young dude-bro who will. If Fox stops pushing deep state
conspiracy theories, its viewers are going to switch to Breitbart.65
        Our media ecosystem makes everyone froth at the mouth: some
from eating Tide Pods, some from talking politics. It’s not that news is
broken. Platforms are broken, and that means everything is broken.

   Rogers, supra note 28.
   Cf. Craig Silverman, This Is How Your Hyperpartisan Political News Gets Made,
BUZZFEED (Feb. 27, 2017, 8:16 PM),
the-hyperpartisan-sausage-is-made [] (describing how
“liberal” and “conservative” sites run by the same creators report the same news
differently for maximum outrage).
   Jack Nicas, How YouTube Drives People to the Internet’s Darkest Corners, WALL ST.
J. (Feb. 7, 2018, 1:04 PM),
the-internets-darkest-corners-1518020478 [].
   See Jason Schwartz, Fox News Hosts Ramp Up ‘Deep State’ Conspiracies, POLITICO
(Jan. 26, 2018),
conspiracies-372856 []. In both cases, it is not that all or
even most of the viewers would consciously explain that this was their considered
preference; rather, a small but influential segment would defect and the dynamics of
virality would amplify their choice to the point that it would noticeably affect a bottom
line. Cf. Joseph Bernstein, How YouTube Serves As the Content Engine of the Internet’s
Dark             Side,          BUZZFEED              (Feb.          25,            2017),
the-internets-dark?utm_term=.ku2EW70k3#.rbZnOp3Pg []
(discussing how YouTube spreads conspiracy theories).