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Friday, May 17, 2024

Why Teens Are Falling for TikTok Conspiracy Theories

Of all the bits of sleepover gossip ever uttered, this was the most unexpected. “Basically, Hillary Clinton sex traffics children and sacrifices them to Satan or something,” said my friend Beth, straightfaced. “It’s called Pizzagate, or whatever.” It was a Friday night a few weeks ago and even though it was a typical girls' night in, it was not a typical conversation—but I took the bait. “It’s called Pizza what?” I asked, totally unsure of what I was getting myself into. “Dude, you haven’t heard? Hillary and that one guy, John something? Podesta? They’re involved in this massive underground sex trafficking operation. I saw it on TikTok. It’s everywhere.” Half convinced she was kidding, I asked if she actually believed something so obviously ridiculous. “I swear, it’s legit,” Beth replied. “There’s been like five videos talking about it in a row. It’s clearly not a coincidence.”


At the completion of Beth’s ode to Pizzagate, I stared at her, eyebrows raised, mouth open. Taking note of my expression, she rolled her eyes. Then I did too. But for the rest of the night, I watched my two best friends gush over the medley of conspiracy theories that had been flickering across their TikTok “For You” pages and Twitter feeds, listening to them debate which celebrity had exploited the most children and who had sacrificed who to what Hollywood god. As the conversation intensified, and the lack of actual evidence became more and more obvious, I was overwhelmed by a wave of hysteria. It all seemed so ridiculous. How could these seemingly well-educated teenagers—rising high school seniors, even—be gullible enough to take a 60-second social media video for the truth? Conspiracy theories always seemed so juvenile to me. I knew better. Others, it seemed, did not.

They’re not alone. Conspiracy theories are finding a whole new generation of acolytes amongst the teens of TikTok, where—according to a recent New York Times report—#Pizzagate posts have been viewed more than 82 million times in the past few months. This became more obvious as the sleepover’s conversation wore on. Honorable mentions of the evening: the (false) claim that home furnishings company Wayfair is involved in a sex-trafficking operation, the (also false) notion that Oprah Winfrey is involved in a similar plot, and—my personal favorite—that one-time pop-punk princess Avril Lavigne has been replaced by a lookalike. (This is, of course, also not true.) Yet, as the night continued it became obvious the people in my friend circle would be willing to bet their life savings, albeit minimal, on the idea that Ellen DeGeneres coerced Oprah into recruiting children for human trafficking after watching a young girl rant through a 30-second clip. The reason for their faith? The girl had made a PowerPoint and even animated the transitions.

On the surface, it makes sense that young people would latch on to conspiracy theories on TikTok. The platform skews young—reportedly one-third of its daily users in the US are 14 or younger—and celebrity gossip has long been the lingua franca of social media for people of all ages. Right-wing conspiracy groups like QAnon have been spreading made-up stories about those in power on networks like Facebook for years. Now those ideas have jumped to TikTok, where they’re being metabolized by much younger consumers. Those things all scan. What doesn’t, however, is why teens believe them.


The short answer? TikTok is full of crazy ideas—conspiracies are no different. They've been normalized by the platform where many young people spend most of their time. “Many of these conspiracy sites and stories are entertaining. They are social gathering spots. They are exciting,” says Nancy Rosenblum, Senator Joseph S. Clark Professor of Ethics in Politics and Government at Harvard University and coauthor of A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. “It’s small wonder that teenagers who ‘live on the screen’ would be drawn to the drama.”

Easy access to social media’s redistribution tools worsens this problem. With every like, share, send, and retweet, teenagers are popularizing this content worldwide. “On social media, repetition substitutes for validation,” says Russel Muirhead, a professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College and Rosenblum’s coauthor. “Repetition is what breathes air into conspiracy theories, and social media is all about repetition. But repeating something that’s false does not make it more true! Teenagers are just as vulnerable to this as grown-ups.”

This wouldn’t be such a problem if teenagers weren’t so attached to social media. So fond, in fact, that some 54 percent of teens get the bulk of their news from it. If this sounds concerning, that’s because it is. With teenagers relying on TikTok as their sole source of information, it makes sense for my generation to become absorbed in webs of falsities and to live as largely uninformed citizens.

According to Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami and coauthor of American Conspiracy Theories, it is somewhat difficult to avoid fake news, because "‘fake news’ is designed to look real. But legitimacy isn’t the only thing people look for in news—sometimes they just want to hear what they want to hear."

It’s no wonder, then, that the absurdities of Pizzagate and the Illuminati are so warmly welcomed by teenagers—that’s all they’re being exposed to. From a teen’s perspective, society has largely set youth up to fail. Teenagers are not able to spot a sensationalistic theory involving Princess Diana’s death as a propagation of falsities. Teenagers are less adept at separating the rumors of a staged moon landing from scientific proof of successful lunar travel. Teenagers are not able to identify credible news from mindless gossip. Years of getting news from social media has impaired their ability to distinguish fact from myth. Although social media allows information to be spread quickly, it doesn’t often fact-check it in the process, leaving misinformation in the same pile as relevant content. Banning posts tagged #Pizzagate on TikTok can only do so much to prevent cross-pollination.

That doesn’t mean all is lost. There are tools to stop the spread of bad info. "Be on guard: if repetition alone is causing you to believe some conspiratorial allegation, ask yourself, What is the evidence? Don’t settle for ‘true-enough-ness,’” Muirhead explains. “Think, examine, and remember that there are only a few things in life we can be 100 percent sure of, like maybe our phone numbers, or our middle names. Most of the time, even when we believe something, we can only be 60 or 70 or 80 percent sure.”

Teenagers also need to talk to each other. Calling out false information in real time keeps it from spreading. So does sharing accurate information. The morning of my conspiracy-laden sleepover, I tried to talk to my friends. I was met with immediate disdain. I meant no harm then, and I mean no harm now—but I did make them register for daily news briefings from our local newspaper.

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