What Netflix didn’t tell you about the “viral” Bird Box Challenge

Netflix’s Twitter account suggests the streaming service may be marketing itself through disingenuous means. 

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When Netflix’s new thriller, Bird Box, hit subscriber accounts at the end of December, the film was instantly popular. Reviews were at worst lukewarm. After the first week of streaming, Netflix proudly announced that the film had been watched by over 45 million accounts in its first seven days – making it the most popular original film the streaming service had ever released.

Despite this popularity, though, the social media attention dedicated to Bird Box has put Netflix under the microscope, and led people to zero in on two particular controversies, which could imply its widely celebrated social media presence may not be as authentic as its fans think.

First came a conspiracy around Netflix’s fan promotion surrounding the opening days of Bird Box. In a tweet on 27 December 2018, journalist Sam Weinberg (@samiswine) posed the idea that Netflix was retweeting memes about Bird Box from “fake” fan accounts created by Netflix itself to create the illusion that the film was more popular than it was in reality. The claim was based on the fact that nearly all of the Bird Box memes being retweeted by Netflix’s many accounts were from Twitter accounts with very few followers (rarely above double digits, many with single figures) and several of them had been created within the last few weeks – posting the single, Netflix-retweeted meme and nothing else. These accounts were suddenly getting thousands of engagements despite practically no followers.

Weinberg’s tweet gained tens of thousands of likes and retweets overnight, before being deleted after 48 hours (although still accessible here). While there is no proof that these accounts are fake ones run by Netflix – and several news sources have questioned the validity of these claims – it’s a very, very strange coincidence at best. 


Screenshot via Twitter Archives

While this particular controversy died down over the course of a few days, a new conspiracy surfaced. Writing for the i paper, journalist Ruchira Sharma reported on “something fishy” regarding another recent Bird Box-related tweet from the Netflix Twitter account. The tweet warned users of the dangers of something called the “Bird Box Challenge”, and was followed by a request that people stop participating in it as a matter of personal safety.

“Can’t believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE,” the @Netflix account tweeted on 2 December 2019. “We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes.” At the time of writing, the tweet has over 40,000 retweets and over 237,000 likes.

However the issue with this tweet is that the “Bird Box Challenge” wasn’t actually a real internet phenomenon at all. Before the tweet, as Sharma points out, tweets and videos tagging the “challenge” were in the tens; and searches for “bird box challenge” were practically non-existent. But, after Netflix posted the warning tweet, the challenge exploded online and was being tried and shared by big name YouTube accounts, reported on by thousands of mainstream news outlets, and being searched in the thousands. What was, at best, an incredibly niche meme before Netflix posted about it, became a viral trend within hours.

When contacted by the New Statesman, Netflix said it did not want to comment on either of these claims. However, we do know Netflix isn’t a novice when it comes to meme-generation. It has been heralded as an industry titan for its clever use of social media, and most of its Twitter and Instagram feeds consist of memes based on its original content (with hundreds of thousands of likes). Netflix knows what’s going to play well on social media, and it knows how to make a viral post. And Netflix is great fodder for the news machine. Even when it’s negative – for example, mocking a portion of its subscribers for repeatedly watching sappy content  – social media users lap up this content and news sources know they can get easy clicks reporting on the “controversy”.

Of course, these conspiracies may simply be coincidences: Netflix could just be hoovering up likes and retweets without actively attempting to manipulate its followers. However, next time the streaming service’s accounts post about what its users are doing, a dose of scepticism may be needed. And we should all be more willing to accept that a company’s social media presence may not be as genuine as it seems.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.