In a recent essay to be published in a forthcoming edition of Georgetown Law Review titled “The Platform is the Message,” Professor of Law James Grimmelmann dissects recent internet phenomena like the Tide Pod Challenge and Fake News. Grimmelmann explores what these trends can teach us about the spread and mutation of ideas, the role platforms like Facebook and Youtube play in their moderation, and why moderation of these things is incredibly difficult.
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.