TikTok conspiracy theories: Fact or fiction?

Zoe Binder

Staff Writer

Quarantine saw the rise of the social media platform TikTok, which now has an estimated 100 million monthly users in the U.S. Much of the content on the app, which allows users to post 15-60 second videos and view content that other users create, seems innocuous enough: dance trends, cooking tutorials, sports highlights, and memes come to mind. But, TikTok has also brought forth a variety of conspiracy theories and rumors since its spike in popularity in March 2020, a fact which is interesting considering 60% of its users are under the age of 30. 

The types of conspiracy theories being shared and spread on TikTok cover a range of topics from the political sphere, including PizzaGate and QAnon, to celebrity life, like #FreeBritney, the Timothee Chalamet chlamydia rumor, Armie Hammer’s cannibalism, and the belief that Hollywood is controlled by devil worshippers, to name a few. 

USF media studies professor Tamara Kneese weighed in on some of the TikTok rumors of which she is aware. “The Helen Keller conspiracy is a recent example I came across,” she said. The rumor she referred to takes on a few different forms: some theorists question the validity of Keller’s work, some claim she was not disabled at all, while others doubt her existence altogether. “That conspiracy theory is troubling because of its inherent ableism: basically, people saying that a person who was blind and deaf could not have written books and been a prominent figure,” Kneese said.

When a conspiracy theory is posted on a social media platform like TikTok, it has a good chance of spreading quickly before it can be fact-checked. Kneese explained that TikTok has an algorithm for what content will appear on a given user’s feed which helps conspiracy videos reach many people quickly. “[The algorithm] targets individuals with content that will likely appeal to them, making it more likely that they will watch a video, interact with it, and share it with others,” she said.

Sophomore international studies major Sofia Chavez offered her thoughts on the misinformation that reaches the “For You” tab on her TikTok account. “The craziest thing I’ve seen recently is that Armie Hammer is a sadistic cannibal,” she said. “A friend of mine sent me a TikTok about that, and then my ‘For You’ page was covered with it.” Armie Hammer, who is famous for starring in the film “Call Me By Your Name,” has been accused by his ex-girlfriend of branding her skin with the letter “A”.

While some TikTok conspiracies — like the ones about Helen Keller — can be easily disproved, others are partially true and warrant further investigation. One such theory revolves around pop star Britney Spears and her father, who, according to rumors, controls most aspects of her life through his legal conservatorship. Conservatorship is a legal arrangement in which a guardian is responsible for a person’s financial and private life when they are deemed mentally unfit to manage it themselves. Spears’ relationship with her father has been in the spotlight recently thanks to The New York Times’ documentary series “Framing Britney Spears”.

TikTok users have been advocating for the pop star to be freed of her conservatorship since the hashtag “#FreeBritney” went viral in the summer of 2020. There is currently an ongoing court battle between Spears and her father about the legality of his conservatorship role. 

Chavez described watching this unfold. “I think it’s amazing that our generation was able to actually make a difference in her [Spears’] life just by spreading the word.” 

Kneese also offered her thoughts on this phenomenon. “In that case, there is some truth to the conspiracy, in that Spears was abused and taken advantage of by her father and various men in her life.” 

Although the #FreeBritney movement may have yielded positive results for Spears, Kneese remains apprehensive about TikTok’s potential to spread misinformation. “If [social media influencers] have the power of a large following behind them, users might believe them, no matter how off-base their conspiracy theory is,” she explained. “There is no such thing as bad attention, at least according to [TikTok’s] algorithm, which might yield even more out-there and potentially dangerous forms of misinformation.”

While political conspiracies that surfaced over the last four years, like the QAnon theory — which posits that various prominent people, like Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, are part of a Satan-worshipping, child-trafficking cabal conspiring against former President Trump —  may have been predominantly propagated by older generations, the rise of pop culture TikTok conspiracies during the pandemic has shown that baby boomers are not the only generation who can be duped by conspiracies. 

“Clearly, just because people are young and have grown up with internet access does not mean they are unsusceptible to misinformation,” Kneese said. “If people are lonely or isolated, conspiracy theories can seem more appealing, especially if they revolve around a leader figure or create a sense of social connection.”

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