The FDA this week announced that cooking chicken in NyQuil isn’t safe, which seems obvious; it came from a “NyQuil cooking challenge” video that went viral — more than a year ago.
Government warnings about viral online fads may come too late to be effective. The NyQuil chicken challenge resurfaced in January after starting as a joke on 4chan in 2017.
- In June, the FDA warned of the dangers of keeping avocados fresh by placing them in water. That video was popular a couple years ago.
- Schools and lawmakers took a few weeks to catch wind of, and warn parents about, a “devious licks” video that resulted in students damaging school property.
- The Tide Pod challenge, which started as a joke on Twitter in late 2017 before making its way to YouTube and elsewhere, got the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s attention about a month after it went viral.
- And French lawmakers needed a few months to warn against the 2018 “InMyFeelings” challenge, which involved getting out of a moving car and dancing.
Government leaders need a lesson on virality. The timing of these warnings highlights the difficulty of staying on top of potentially dangerous challenges, which can go viral in a matter of days. “The FDA is always playing catch-up with these things,” Jeffrey Blevins, a professor at the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department, told me. “It’s impossible for them to be ahead of it. Who in their right mind would have thought of NyQuil chicken?”
- But the fact that the FDA and other government agencies need months — even years — to identify and warn people about dangerous viral trends defeats the purpose of the warning. Once the alert comes around, the damage may have already been done.
- The way in which the FDA responds to harmful viral videos might not be that effective anyway: The ones making the posts go viral — kids — probably aren’t following government alerts, Blevins said. “I would really encourage these agencies to think about being a little more creative in how they respond,” he said.
- The FDA could post TikToks or poke fun at the absurdity of cooking chicken with NyQuil while also explaining the harms, for example. (The FDA didn’t immediately return a request for comment.)
It’s not just the government; pediatricians, schools, and other organizations are aware of the dangers of social media trends and are trying to catch on to them quickly. But word spreads fast, and in order for the government’s warnings to be effective, they need to happen sooner.
A version of this story appeared in Thursday's Source Code. Sign up here to get it in your inbox each morning.