Conspiracy theories find new, younger fans on TikTok
On TikTok, user @tythecrazyguy has amassed 3.7 million followers on one of the internet’s most popular topics: conspiracy theories. But Ty is no typical conspiracy theorist. He’s a high school student who flaunts rainbow flags during Pride Month, supports Black Lives Matter, and condemns Trump. “I’m a very liberal person and I’m not trying to attract people from Trump,” Ty said. Rolling stone. “I think it’s pretty clear where I stand politically.”
In videos that often garner millions of views, he introduces subscribers to what he calls the “ConspiracTEA” of the day. “I wanted to put my own little Gen Z twist on it,” he says. “I wanted to make it something the younger kids could digest and have fun watching and enjoying.” The problem with explaining the world’s craziest theories – from birds not real and flat Earthlings to Hollywood cover-ups and Wayfair-based child sex trafficking networks – in a compelling, shareable format is that it is. is also a great way to spread misinformation.
Ty is a bit of an anomaly, as research has repeatedly shown that baby boomers are seven to eight times more likely to disseminate disinformation than college-aged children, according to Darren Linvill, associate professor at the Media Forensics Hub. from Clemson University which studies social media disinformation. media. But times could change. “These numbers are based on research on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube; they may be based on an old paradigm and [the fact] this content is often packaged for an older audience, ”says Linvill. “Ty here is clearly designed to appeal to a younger, more progressive audience… This guy isn’t Alex Jones. He’s looking for a very different audience.
“We need to talk about it, ”Ty said at the opening of his videos, holding an AirPod as a microphone. It continues to spring forth from everything from the murder of Princess Diana to Khloe Kardashian’s parentage to the Hollow Earth conspiracy theory and the idea that the government is trying to control us by putting fluoride in our drinking water. Ignoring the fact that most of them are unsubstantiated assumptions – and sometimes downright confuse the facts – he shares the most compelling “evidence” for each, often ending with his hand clasped to his mouth under a dramatic shock. It even has a video explaining “the real way to survive a plane crash,” which peddles, without warning, the false theory that safety guidelines for flights in the backup position ask passengers to assume when flying. A crash landing is designed to kill passengers instantly rather than saving them. “Do the airlines want you to die?” ” he ask. Ty insists this is all for fun. “I know when people think of conspiracy theories, they think of super dark theories, like the 9/11 theories, things like that,” he says. “Growing up, I always moved away from these and was more interested in light pop culture theories.”
Truly one of the most interesting conspiracTEA theories I have ever covered! #conspiracy
♬ Mysterious – Andreas Scherren
Ty readily admits that he maintains at least some of the conspiracy theories. “I’ve always, from a young age, been really obsessed with assumptions and things that don’t look like reality,” he says. The completely unfounded theory that Wayfair deals with children, for example – a theory that was widely circulated in QAnon circles last summer – is something he read that really troubled him. “I came across an article about this that worried me, so I thought publishing it would spread it,” he says, adding that he didn’t realize the theory is popular among adherents. of QAnon, who believe that a satanic pedophile cabal is threatening. the children of the nation. “I didn’t even know it was like a very right-wing theory, if I’m being honest.”
The concern is that these ideas can really take hold in people who had not heard of them before. Dr Kathleen Stansberry, who studies media analytics to understand how data is used to change our understanding of the world, worries that constant exposure on a platform like TikTok will do the job of other platforms. Social media have done before: make you think of your organized information. food represents the whole world. “Once you’ve heard [something] six or seven times you don’t know you’re part of a community where these videos are getting more and more popular, ”she says. “It can make it look like everything TikTok is talking about and maybe even feel like that’s what a lot of people [outside the platform] reflect. But really, TikTok was able to determine that this type of content is going to keep you watching.
Thanks to TikTok’s powerful recommendation engines and its dark plans to moderate the content, disinformation and disinformation can spread quickly and widely. If you watch a video that features conspiracy-type thinking, not only will you get more conspiracy videos, but users with similar viewing habits to yours will also see such content, according to Stansberry. Engaging with multiple types of viewers can help a designer reach a larger audience. “Even if you’re a user who wouldn’t go looking for conspiracy-style videos, but like this style of face-to-face, confessional, and easy sharing… this could be a gateway to a broader and more involved look at other conspiracy theories, ”she said. “It’s snowballing fast on TikTok.”
Likewise, TikTok measures the time spent on a video, so it’s great for creators to keep viewers hooked on every word until the end. Bonus points if you can get a user to leave a comment – whether you say they’re crazy or agree with them, it helps the creator reach more users. Conspiracy theory videos are perfect for this, Stansberry says, perhaps even more so because of the times we live in: a time of uncertainty in the Covid-19 pandemic and widespread distrust of institutions. established. “Plot-style content is very engaging right now, so it keeps people engaged, even if they aren’t looking for it themselves. The hashtags #conspiracy, #conspiracytheory, and #conspiracytheories have 11.3 billion views on TikTok. The content is hugely popular and creators like Ty are taking advantage of it. “It really became something I never expected,” he says. “I didn’t expect a lot of people to be so interested in these conspiracy theories. But they’re all meant to be super light. I never want to upset anyone with my theories.
Ty joined TikTok in August 2019. His first post said that his friends didn’t think he could become famous on the platform. “Prove them they’re wrong,” read the text in the video, and urged users to follow. Since then, he has slowly found his way to massive numbers. At first, he mostly posted jokes about being in high school. There are videos on acne, studies for testing, and ordering McNuggets at McDonald’s. A few have gone viral, but most have a few thousand views. “My ‘for you’ page was just funny videos,” he says. “So that’s what I emulated [at first], and I was like, I want to try something original that nobody did. He launched his ConspiracTEA series four months after the pandemic lockdown, in July 2020. The posts immediately received millions of views and he quickly moved on to all of the conspiracy content.
Ty posts sponsored videos on his page and has a website where he sells ConspiracTEA hoodies and travel mugs. Abbie Richards, who researches disinformation on the platform, wrote a twitter thread on Ty after posting a video of last summer’s Wayfair conspiracy theory. In this thread she observed that accounts like Ty’s have little reason to change the direction they’re headed. “There is a financial incentive to keep digging deeper and deeper, to find more conspiracies, so that he can create more content,” Richards said. “Ty is just one example of a TikToker who has been awarded for promoting conspiracy theories and pushing to keep going. His success isn’t exceptional, it’s a symptom of an economy that rewards content. clickbait that attracts attention.
As TikTok’s recommendation algorithm continues to evolve, Linvill hopes the younger generation will be more demanding than their fake news predecessors. “I want to believe that young Americans are more critical of what they see on social media because they are digital natives,” he says. “But if it’s packaged specifically for them, then it’s more likely to break through.”
There are already signs that Ty is attracting the opinions of not only young progressives who may see hot gossip as comedy, but also true believers. One of his less popular videos was celebrating Biden’s victory in November 2020. “All of you human rights are going to be protected for the next 4 years ahhhh,” he wrote on a clip of him. dancing on Becky G in front of an election card green screen. “I love your videos, but I don’t agree with it,” one user commented. Another came up with an idea for a new post: “You should make a video on how [Biden] cheated and all the evidence only speaks volumes.
When it comes to right-wing commentators, Ty says he just ignores them. “Comments like these are definitely not the target audience,” he says. “I got tons of requests to make shows that are really right-wing or anti-Biden, and I just ignore them because I would never put something like that that doesn’t match my moral beliefs.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include an interview with @tythecrazyguy.