TikTok, Popular Culture & Conspiracy Theories
Jul 12, 2021 —
By James Woods, Student Research Assistant on the Infodemic project
The short-form video-sharing social media platform TikTok has emerged as a major benefactor of the conditions created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Social media usage surged as many countries around the world went into lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. TikTok soon topped download charts and became a household name as people scrambled to stay connected and distracted (Feldkamp, 2021). The pandemic and subsequent ‘infodemic’ presented social media platforms with huge challenges as they moved to quell criticism over their handling of a growing prevalence of misinformation on their platforms (Wakefield, 2021). While TikTok was already facing scrutiny over misinformation spreading on the platform before Covid-19 gripped the world (Rannard, 2020), the policies in place were substandard and this was true for most other social media platforms. Over half of all TikTok users are under the age of 35 (Feldkamp, 2021) and our dataset of Covid-19 online conspiracism suggests that conspiracy thinking is diversifying on this platform and appealing to younger people, some of whom are using popular culture (music, film and television) as a gateway to conspiracy thinking. This blog post will offer an overview of the history of TikTok and how it works, as well as insights into how people have used TikTok during the Covid-19 pandemic to assess how TikTok has responded to the ‘infodemic’. Drawing on our dataset of Covid-19 online conspiracism, this blog will offer some key examples of Covid-19 conspiracy theory focused TikTok videos to illustrate how popular culture has emerged as a theme in the data and how it is used to inspire, convey, or reinforce conspiracy theories.
A brief History of TikTok
TikTok is a novel social media platform that was launched globally in 2017 following an initial launch in China in 2016 as an app called ‘Douyin’ (Caffrey, 2021). By 2019 TikTok had become a household name with hundreds of millions of monthly active users around the world and has seen it partner with major sporting events such as the NFL (Caffrey, 2021), Euro 2020 (UEFA, 2021) and more recently as the shirt sponsor of Wrexham AFC (2021). The platform has drawn increased attention from the media and politicians due to security concerns (Caffrey, 2021) which led to then President of the United States, Donald Trump, introducing a ban on the app in the US in 2020. This ban faced numerous legal challenges and has recently been withdrawn by Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden (Kelly, 2021). Questions remain over TikTok’s future as a global social media force as political pressure, as well as concerns over security and censorship, persist. Regardless of TikTok’s future, the app has undoubtedly played a significant role in the pandemic.
How does TikTok work?
TikTok is a short-form video-sharing smartphone-based app that is built around user-generated content, dependent on users to create and share video content (Feldkamp, 2021). The app ‘home’ screen constantly auto-plays a TikTok video on a loop, a simple scroll up seamlessly takes the user to the next TikTok clip with minimal effort. This scrolling design, reminiscent of a slot machine, means that the user will sometimes find pleasure in a post, but sometimes they will not. This creates a state of ‘random reinforcement’–this design, which has historically underpinned gambling game design, has been adopted by social media companies in the design of their products and TikTok have taken this to a new level (John Koetsier, 2020). In the wake of TikTok’s success, Instagram has attempted to replicate this addictive feature using ‘reels’ which was launched in summer 2020 (Alexander, 2020). In a similar attempt to compete with TikTok, YouTube launched a feature called ‘shorts’ earlier this year (Gartenberg, 2021). As Ashaghimina et al. (2020) outline, TikTok delivers content using a recommendation system which presents videos to users built around their preferences and activities on the platform: “Recommendations rely on a number of factors, including user interactions (i.e. liked or shared content, followed accounts), video information (i.e. captions, sounds and hashtags), as well as basic device and account settings” (Ashaghimina et al. 2020). This is how the “home” page, which is also known as the ‘For You’ page (Feldkamp, 2021), is generated for a specific user.
How was TikTok Used During the Pandemic?
The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered the way societies function with over 100 countries imposing lockdown measures (BBC News, 2020a). This sudden turn left people around the world separated, isolated, and bored, with the social and cultural connections and events that had long underpinned our lives completely halted without warning or precedence (Feldkamp, 2021). As people clambered to fill these sudden, unsettling voids in their lives and cope with the global crisis unfolding around them, many turned to technology, using the internet and social media to find solutions (Feldkamp, 2021). Amongst the social media platforms available was TikTok. Growing in popularity before the pandemic, the latter has acted as a stimulant for TikTok, not only in increasing the download rate and putting it at the top of app charts but also expanding user demographics (Feldkamp, 2021). During the pandemic, social media platforms have had to try to respond to the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation, and disinformation. The World Health Organization, as well as doctors and nurses, joined TikTok in a bid to fight misinformation surrounding Covid-19. However, it is important to note that there have also been accusations of some medical staff posting medical misinformation on TikTok even before Covid-19 emerged (Rannard, 2020). Therefore, the potential for TikTok to act as a vector for the spread of misinformation was already was known before the pandemic and TikTok could have been more proactive in tackling problematic content on the platform.
TikTok’s Response to the “Infodemic”
TikTok responded to the infodemic by, like other social media platforms, launching a Covid-19 hub that aimed to offer verified information about the virus. By July 2020, the hub had been visited over 52 million times by users in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain (BBC News, 2020b). TikTok also launched a Covid-19 information banner which would be added to videos that contained words, music or hashtags relating to Covid-19, and by July 2020 this had been applied to seven million videos in Europe alone (BBC News, ibid). It is difficult to ascertain who was visiting TikTok’s Covid-19 hub, why they were visiting it, or what they gained from it. However, it has been noted that as Covid-19 was emerging, TikTok’s policies only covered scams and fake profiles, only later being expanded to cover “medical misinformation, misinformation based on hate speech and misinformation likely to cause societal panic and real world harm” (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, 2020). It is clear from the fact that most social media platforms had substandard policies before the Covid-19 pandemic, that social media companies were unprepared for the challenges of an “infodemic” brought on by a global crisis. As an emerging form of social media, TikTok may have been less prepared to respond to the infodemic than more established social media platforms and the way TikTok is designed may have posed new challenges. By July 2020 TikTok had removed 29,000 videos that broke their community guidelines in Europe, 3,000 of which included medical misinformation. However, TikTok acknowledges that while they believe these numbers are low they cannot be certain of how many videos contain Covid-19 misinformation (BBC News, 2020b). TikTok has made an effort to address the “infodemic” as it emerged, setting up the Covid-19 hub, launching the Covid-19 information banner and removing some videos. However, from our dataset of Covid-19 online conspiracism, it is apparent that many problematic TikTok videos remain on the platform. This could be for numerous reasons including the use of obfuscation techniques of posters, the overriding light-hearted nature of the content on the platform, or a failure of the policies and approaches TikTok has taken to date.
Examples of Popular Culture in Covid-19 Conspiracy Theory TikTok Videos
Popular culture has been a notable feature of conspiracy theory focused videos on TikTok throughout the pandemic. These videos are often based on a claim that the film, book, song, or game have predicted the Covid-19 pandemic. Others suggest the popular culture text reveals a Covid-19 conspiracy theory or a pre-existing conspiracy theory which is then reformatted for the pandemic, or they absorb the pandemic into pre-existing conspiracy theories.
- One popular book and film, The 5th Wave, has been used frequently on social media to suggest we are living through the plot of this sci-fi tale. One TikTok portraying this conspiracy theory has been viewed 1.4 million times, gaining over 183,000 likes and 1303 comments. Another has been viewed over half a million times, attracting 129,500 likes and 1131 comments. These TikTok videos often use other disconcerting crises, such as natural disasters and climate change, to illustrate the various waves from the plot.
- In 2020, hip-hop artist Dr Creep fuelled emerging conspiracy theories that his 2013 track “Pandemic” predicted coronavirus by inserting a new line into the TikTok version: “2020 combined with coronavirus, bodies stacking.” This version has been viewed over 900,000 times, with 73,000 likes and 1024 comments. This particular conspiracy theory has gained media attention in recent weeks in NME, The Independent and LADbible.
- Even Disney is not immune to conspiracy theories. One TikTok video untangled a theory that the 2010 film Tangled predicted social distancing and quarantine. The theory hinges on the fact that the kingdom in which the film was set is called “Corona” and that it was released just after the H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic in 2009. This TikTok has been viewed over 2.2m times and gained 470,000 likes and 5099 comments. The creator admits that they had seen this conspiracy theory circulating online but wanted to add more detail.
It is difficult to fully understand the motivations behind the creation and sharing of conspiracy theory based TikTok videos. Some may simply be expressively responding to the pandemic, others may be merely trying to gain hits and go viral, while some may be trying to disrupt or spread a conspiracy theory in a more serious vein. Whatever the intention behind the creation of this content, it ultimately opens up a digital space for conspiracy theories to thrive and for users to engage. TikTok has the potential to draw people into conspiracy thinking who may not previously have engaged with conspiracy thinking before, but it also offers a space for people to challenge conspiracy theories and fight misinformation.
Role of Pop Culture in TikTok Conspiracy Theories
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that popular culture is being used to inspire, convey, or reinforce conspiracy theories since conspiracy theories have captured imaginations for decades, emerging through popular culture in film, television, books, and music (Knight, 2000). David Aaronovitch (2010) argues that conspiracy thinking has become increasingly fashionable. However, some scholars have argued that levels of conspiracy thinking have remained at a constant level throughout history except for two critical peaks in the 1890s and 1950s (Uscinski and Parent, 2014). It therefore remains to be seen whether the Covid-19 pandemic has increased the prevalence of conspiracy theories. Popular culture emerged as a potent theme within our dataset of Covid-19 online conspiracism, particularly on Twitter and Instagram but even more so on TikTok. TV and films (including The Simpsons, Batman and Tangled) were prevalent alongside references to the books The 5th Wave and The Eyes of Darkness, and video games such as Call of Duty and Resident Evil. The use of popular culture makes conspiracy theories more accessible; it serves to facilitate and animate conspiracy thinking. Here, it is important to recognise that the Covid-19 pandemic is likely to have impacted the entire global population and as people struggle to make sense of this unsettling event, which induces panic, insecurity, and a loss of control, people are increasingly susceptible to conspiracy thinking as a method of coping with this global crisis (Franks et al. 2017; Van Prooijen and Douglas, 2017). Many of the TikTok videos from our dataset of Covid-19 online conspiracism were certainly expressive. When paired with the social void created by the pandemic and the subsequent wave of boredom, such expressiveness could go some way to explaining why people draw on popular culture to mediate conspiracy thinking.
TikTok has been a major benefactor of the conditions created by the Covid-19 pandemic, this is also true of social media and technology more broadly, as people scrambled to find ways to stay connected, avert boredom and seek distraction from the crisis (Feldkamp, 2021). Although TikTok was facing scrutiny over misinformation before the pandemic, the subsequent “infodemic” increased pressure on the platform, along with other social media platforms, to respond. However, it is unclear what impact the policies put in place by TikTok during the pandemic had on problematic content on the platform. Analysis of our dataset of Covid-19 online conspiracism suggests that there has been much less content removal and deplatforming on TikTok compared to other hegemonic social media platforms. The design of social media platforms, which have been likened to slot machine design using a ‘random reinforcement’ approach, have created addictive products (Koetsier, 2020) and this has been taken to new levels of intensity by TikTok and its recommendation algorithm. This has presented new challenges for policies designed to prevent and halt the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation on social media.
The theory that popular culture on TikTok acts as a facilitator of conspiracy thinking requires further research. Conspiracies and conspiracy theories have long underpinned plots of books, films, music, TV and other art forms and this has offered ripe pickings for those seeking to “connect the dots”, “red pill” themselves and others, or simply entertain. This vast library of content is easily reformatted and reinterpreted for the Covid-19 pandemic or the next event that entices conspiracy thinking regardless of the creators’ intentions. TikTok and social media have offered a new dimension to the pre-existing conspiracy focused plots of many art forms, where people can interpret and reframe fictional stories and gear them towards unsettling events such as the pandemic. As a novel form of social media, TikTok requires more research. Indeed, social media requires increased attention especially as the pandemic has increased the way technology has been entwined into daily life. The Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent “infodemic” has reinforced calls for increased scholarly focus on conspiracy theories and other forms of false information, particularly in online spaces.
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