How Misinformation and Conspiracy Spreads on TikTok

How+Misinformation+and+Conspiracy+Spreads+on+TikTok

Teenagers walk the halls of the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse in Van Nuys looking for the notorious courtroom where Erik and Lyle Menendez were found guilty of murder. While this may have been expected in 1993, the year is 2021. So why does the younger generation care about this case nearly 30 years after it has run its course? The answer is TikTok.

The fastest growing social media network, TikTok, is huge with the younger generation and has a massive impact on popular culture, music, and even what is considered trendy. TikTok consists of 15 second to one minute long videos with a myriad of different genres. While videos of catchy dances originally took off on TikTok, you can find videos about basically any topic on the custom tailored “for you” page. From sports, to comedy, to informational videos, TikTok has basically every type of video imaginable. With the great variety of videos that exist on the platform, it is hard for younger viewers to separate facts and jokes from complete misinformation, which has led to many conspiracy theories spreading on the platform.

The first example of this comes from videos claiming that Helen Keller was a fraud. What started as a supposed-joke on the platform has evolved into real conspiracy theories, with the hashtag “helenkellerisfake” gaining over seven million views. While some may say that this still is a joke, there are definitely a large number of people who think her life was a fraud, specifically that she was faking her disabilities.

“I literally don’t get how she could could write books,” TikTok user “officialrampart.png” said on a video claiming that Helen Keller was a fraud, “like it’s just not real.”

This idea is not only extremely ableist, but it also discredits the stories of disabled people everywhere. Keller developed both deafness and blindness at a very young age, but was able to overcome these challenges with the help of her tutor Anne Sullivan. Keller was able to learn how to read, write, and even speak. An icon of the disabled community, Keller was able to overcome not one, but two disabilities and live an exceptional life in a time where education for the deaf and blind was much more primitive.

Another example involves the story of the Menendez brothers, who have come back into the limelight after years in prison. The now infamous trial orignally took the national stage in 1993, when the brothers were tried for the murder of their parents. In the original case the fact that the brothers murdered their parents was not entirely denied, as Erik admitted that he committed the murder to his therapist.

In the second trial, however, both brothers claimed that they were victims of sexual abuse by their father and comitted the murders as self defense. It is important to note that there hasn’t been any new evidence introduced or new information about the trial, so the traction the story has gained recently is seemingly out of nowhere.

“They did nothing wrong at all,” TikTok user “zeqse” said on a video with over five million likes posted by the account @menendezsupport90s.

While it is impossible to know if the claims of sexual abuse are true or not, it doesn’t change the fact that the brothers brutally shot and killed their parents, something that many users on TikTok fail to grasp. The outrage amongst TikTok users has even spread into the real world where the Menendez’s story has recently been covered by mainstream media companies such as the New York Times and ABC News.

The fact that both of these stories gained traction on TikTok shows the power of the social media network. While TikTok may just seem like an app for teens, it is clear that TikTok has a massive impact on our society as a whole.

Looking back on other incidents of misinformation and propaganda on social media, the incident of Russia’s attack on Facebook instantly comes to mind. While influencing an election may be different than what is currently happening on TikTok, something of that nature could easily happen if TikTok was targeted with evil intent. As a platform with over 600 million users, most of which are between the ages of 10 and 29, TikTok is an easy place to spread misinformation. In a world where misinformation has become more prevalent and more dangerous, TikTok has shown how important it is to be a critical reader and not believe everything you see online.