On any given day, my TikTok For You page is filled with mini vlogs, coffee recipes, and puppies. Lately, this mixed bag of viral posts have also included something less aesthetically pleasing: outlandish safety precautions. These videos, often advertised as “Airbnb safety tips” or advice to combat sex trafficking, have managed to permeate my algorithm, touting average users as security experts who inspect smoke detectors and alarm clocks for spy cameras, or check parking lots for mysterious white vans.
There was such a demand for TikTok user @Telaboy314's videos that he had to create a separate page for it. His page is dedicated to makeshift “experiments” on air vents and electrical sockets, though the reasons behind his MacGyver-like tests are not always apparent. Stay on his page long enough, though, and you’ll find out that these videos are also a part of a marketing strategy to lead you to his song, “Checkin’ Mirrors,” named after the surprisingly common TikTok practice of using Sharpies to test for a one-way mirrors in Airbnbs and other short-term rentals.
“It started with me checking the mirrors on one video, which I didn’t think would go viral,” he told VICE. “I woke up and it had like 5 million views. I went viral on YouTube before, and it slipped right through my fingers, so I told myself that if I ever got the opportunity again, I would try to handle the business that comes with it.”
Although his song, which has about 35,000 streams on YouTube, doesn’t have nearly the millions of plays that his TikToks do, the crowd he draws is emblematic of one thing: Irrational fear is a TikTok genre now. The niche reduces emergencies to parody-level skits that bank on anxiety as a metric for engagement. On the platform, 2 billion videos are filed under #safetytips, with 51.6 million videos tagged under #safetytipsforwomen. But the idea that these largely unsubstantiated, often nonsensical, videos can be heralded as “tips” begs a question. Are these tips actually going to make you safer? Of course not. So who stands to benefit the most from the provocation of fear?
In our lifetimes, fear-mongering has manifested through sensationalized media outlets and sometimes just word of mouth, whether it was Islamophobia following 9/11, the migrant caravans of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and most recently, COVID-19 vaccines. Then, of course, there are the seasonal scare tactics that tend to reappear around Halloween: Rumors of tainted candy dates back to the 70s, but is still making its rounds after rainbow fentanyl-laced candy allegedly hit the market. Playing to the fears of Americans became a lucrative business model, as seen in how chairman Roger Ailes shaped Fox News in what Rolling Stone called a “fear factory.”
When it comes to fear, why do people consume content that scares them? According to Medical News Today, after the immediate physical symptoms of experiencing fear, like heavy breathing and a drop in your stomach, your body experiences a burst of pleasure. That pleasure, however, only exists under one premise: the fear is controlled, meaning you understand you are not in any real danger.
Today’s Airbnb safety tips are a notable subgenre within the same style, preying on the fears about peeping toms and burglars—fears that these scenarios could, essentially, happen to any one of us. To what end? If you find a one-way mirror, what do you even do? How likely is this in the first place? In a statement provided to VICE by Airbnb, the company said, “With over one billion check-ins on Airbnb to date, safety-related reports are incredibly rare. In fact, less than 0.1 percent of reservations result in a safety report by Hosts or guests.”
Last week, @JanelleandKate, a page that typically posts pranks and skits, uploaded a TikTok compilation of signs that you are being targeted, like zip ties on your door handles, money in your windshield, and misplaced shopping carts when walking to your car. “If you see this, run,” the creator said at the start of the video. She even suggested that someone could be hiding under your car, waiting to cut your Achilles heel to slow you down. Is it supposed to be a prank or practical advice? None of the suggestions really feel like realistic obstructions to watch out for, but as a viewer you don’t always know a creator’s intent. “As women, you need to be aware of your surroundings,” she said. The video, which also uses the hashtags #women and #blonde, has over 10 million views. And even though some of its most viral “tips” feel like blatant mockeries of worst-case scenarios, the clip’s comment section is still filled with women suggesting that those scenarios conjure up some of their biggest fears. Interestingly, it was also posted on Instagram; the platform flagged the video as false information.
Sex trafficking prevention videos have been big on TikTok for a while, like a series last year suggesting that (mainly) white women were followed to their cars in Target parking lots. What these videos leave out is that human traffickers don’t typically kidnap people randomly. Megan Cutter, the director for the National Human Trafficking Hotline, has seen first-hand how rumors about sex trafficking have evolved since the days of chainletters to alarmist TikToks. “During that first year of the pandemic, we saw a lot of videos rooted in misinformation,” she said. “Good intentions, but certainly not in the way that we understand that trafficking happens.” According to a 2020 report compiled by the Polaris Project, a non-profit aiming to stop human trafficking, victims are often recruited by people they know, with 42 percent recruited by family members and 39 percent propositioned by a romantic partner. There is no data to suggest that stranger-danger incidents happen as frequently as people on social media would like you to think.
Cutter said that while many of the stories in these videos do sound like unsafe situations, interpreting every uncomfortable interaction as a sex trafficking incident obscures the reality of how it actually happens.
“When we look at trafficking as something that happens randomly, we’re ignoring how vulnerabilities happen,” Cutter said. There are a number of systemic issues, like houselessness, substance abuse, sexual orientation, and race, that make people more susceptible to being trafficked. “When we minimize that piece and have a narrative about roses in your windshield or car seats on the sidewalk, we’re not talking about how people can actually keep themselves and their communities safe.” In other words, an individual failing to investigate their car is not what typically results in a dangerous situation—it’s all of the ways that marginalized people fall in the cracks of systems that should protect them.
It certainly seems like these types of videos are becoming more common, but why? According to Jeff Hancock, the director at Stanford University’s Social Media Lab who studies deception, our perception of truth varies by social media platform, which actually makes it easier for people to spread misinformation. “TikTok is designed to have you interacting with producers who you are unlikely to have a real-world tie with,” he said. “If you and I have a tie and I were to lie to you right now and you found out, it would have reputational harm for me. On TikTok, it’s less harmful to my reputation and even less harmful to our relationship.”
At the same time, audiences often have their guard down on TikTok because content disguised as everyday occurrences seems weirder to lie about. “When I engage with politics online, I have my shield up,” Hancock said. “But when I’m on TikTok and I want to look up symptoms about depression or how to stay safe, my shield isn’t up because they look like everyday people.”
The lane for marketing fear as content unearths a deep level of paranoia—or the idea that none of us are really safe. It might be well-intentioned, or it might be a crude form of marketing; in any case, misinformation only exacerbates an already booming attention economy that is completely unrelated to keeping you safe.
Kristin Corry is a senior staff writer at VICE.