For most people, the 24th of April was just like any other day. On TikTok, people thought otherwise. “If you’re ever attacked, take a piece of them with you,” one advised. “Ladies, a word of advice for April 24 – calling 911’s an option but a six-inch blade never loses its reception,” another posted.
Users were convinced that women were in danger after a threatening video on the platform called for it to be designated a “National Rape Day”. Hundreds of reaction videos – drawing in over 181 million views – were posted with the hashtag #April24. Women were told to stay at home and arm themselves in self-defence. One user proposed murdering rapists.
The problem? The video didn’t seem to exist.
Most people go on TikTok expecting to see the latest dance trends, relatable POV sketches, transitions getting rinsed to death and whatever else their unique FYP algorithm conjures up. But sometimes, and it’s not very often, the app becomes an epicentre of mass panic.
In 2020, users awaited impending doom after a bunch of baby witches allegedly hexed the moon. Then there was the #August27 trend where people were told that they’d been “chosen” for something to happen on the date, causing some to genuinely feel anxious.
The latest reaction videos about #April24 are the most disturbing ones yet, mainly because they prey on real fears of sexual assault. But when VICE reached out to TikTok, we were told that the company had found no evidence of a video announcing the day of violence. VICE found some users who had stitched part of what appeared to be the original video into their post, but a full version of the clip found on YouTube didn’t reference the date at all.
What happened seems to be increasingly routine on the app: a provocative hoax appeared on a few people’s timelines. Users reacted to it in anger, then other people reacted to the reactions and more people reacted to people reacting to the reactions. With the OG clip either nonexistent or deleted, the only thing left was a bunch of fear-mongering videos with no original source or people to hold accountable.
“Because of how TikTok is built, it’s hard to see things chronologically, which isn’t the same with other social media platforms,” says Laura Garcia, a disinformation journalist at First Draft News. “One of the first tenets of verifying information is provenance. Find the original and you can understand the context of a story – but if you can’t find it or it’s been taken down, that becomes so much more problematic. The issue with these trends is that the algorithm makes it impossible to trace the original.”
Becca, a 17-year-old from Ontario, Canada was one of the first people to post about the 27th of August last year, despite not seeing the original video. “I saw that #August27 was a trending hashtag and I started researching it a bit. I thought I’d share it with my followers, but I wasn’t expecting for it to get as many views as it did,” she says.
Does she believe the day was actually ‘special’ upon reflection? “I do think it was real, but that’s a personal opinion. I also think a lot of people misunderstood the hashtag and were misusing it to make creepy videos, which is what made the trend confusing.”
This month, Chayse, a 22-year-old from Indiana, posted a video in response to the #April24 fears – also without seeing the original. She told VICE: “I saw my friend’s reaction video to it, but there were people making jokes in the comments saying things like ‘we’re coming for you’ or ‘hopefully you run faster than me’. So that really drove me to make my own video.”
Chayse says she didn’t want her message to scare anyone, but wanted to make a point that sometimes viral trends can end up with people actually participating in them. “I’m a sexual assault survivor and so I’m not going to let other women back down or hide because someone is making a joke out of something.”
But why are users so compelled to make reaction videos without verifying the facts? “I pretty much decided to put my piece out there because [sexual assault] can happen at any time,” says Elyse, a 20-year-old from Atlanta, who also posted a #April24 video. “Regardless if it's April 24th or any other day, women need to know how to protect themselves. But I didn’t do as much digging as far as trying to find the original video.”
Misinformation expert Garcia says that social media allows us to express and perform our identities for the communities and tribes we belong in. “Taking a stand on something like sexual harassment and rape speaks to a community,” she explains. “Whether you’re a man in solidarity with women or a woman speaking out about women’s rights, it becomes an identity politics issue.”
It seems that so much of the reaction video economy is also based on the fact you can’t simply retweet a TikTok. Instead, you can only “duet” other videos on the platform to show solidarity and make your voice heard. And when fear is the motivator, TikTok’s platform seems to reward users for content that makes them feel emotionally involved with their audience. Looking at it cynically, people get likes and shares and grow their followings for creating emotive videos, even if that’s not their original intention.
Though we seem to have developed a better understanding of how fake news spread in the past few years, these types of reaction videos seem to fall through the cracks. “The problem with disinformation and why the term ‘fake news’ just doesn’t cut it is that the idea of fake news is too binary,” says Garcia.
“We think that something is either fake or isn’t. The problem with misinformation is that it’s a phenomenon that exists in the shades of grey. These types of reaction videos lack the crucial context and they end up being very misleading, despite containing kernels of truth.”
So what can TikTok do? The platform told VICE that it couldn’t find any of the original videos that prompted the #April24 hashtag, and that it immediately removes content that glorifies or promotes non-consensual sex acts. But Garcia argues that most of these moderation processes are hidden from proper scrutiny.
“What we get to see is the tip of the iceberg or the byproduct of what they’ve done after the fact,” she says. “TikTok has started doing labels about potential misinformation on topics like COVID-19 or elections to introduce friction for the user, to make you think twice before sharing something. But we don’t have the research to know if these measures actually work. We’re just assuming they do.”
Unless there’s a major moderator intervention on TikTok or a huge restructure of the app, the reaction video cycle will only continue. In the meantime, look out for another TikTok panic hitting your FYP feed soon.