Finding ride-share horror stories isn’t difficult. Last year, Uber’s first-ever safety report revealed almost 6,000 people reported being sexually assaulted in 2017 and 2018. The same year Uber released its report, Lyft was flooded with sexual assault lawsuits, with one law firm alone representing over 100 cases against both companies.
But before the issue gained widespread media attention, these stories traveled on social media and between friend groups. Now, young people are repurposing TikTok—a platform known for comedy clips, memes, and social commentary—to make videos of fake conversations that help vulnerable people escape dodgy rideshare situations.
These videos are meant to fake one side of a phone conversation so it looks like whoever plays them is talking to a friend. The hope is that anyone who overhears may reconsider an assault or harassment because somebody knows where they are, and would notice if the passenger went missing.
A Twitter thread by writer Haaniyah Angus showcased a variety of fake phone call TikToks to use in sketchy Ubers or Lyfts, including one that mentions a taser, and a separate thread for videos in Spanish. Angus also linked a script by Ellie Wilkinson, an 18-year-old from England, who told Motherboard she created her first video after seeing an American version.
“I didn’t think a British person using that video would seem as realistic as one that featured a British accent,” Wilkinson said. Her videos provide a script for the passenger to read to make the conversation seem seamless because, “I think that in a dangerous situation it may be difficult to respond off the top of your head.”
For Wilkinson, the main inspiration behind making these TikToks is to help people feel less anxious. “I have been in many situations before where I would have been grateful to have access to a video like the ones being made on TikTok,” she said. “It can be frightening, especially for young people, to be in a situation where you feel unsafe and there is no one around to help you.”
Memes and trends are a big part of TikTok, so there are a plethora of these videos available. Bria Williamson, a 23-year-old from Philadelphia, told Motherboard she makes her own videos because, “I wanted people to feel safe knowing that even though I am not physically there, I could save them by doing a simple 50-second video.”
Williamson was introduced to the trend after TikTok included one on her “For You” page, the app’s algorithmically-generated recommendation page. There, Williamson noticed something troubling: “The video I saw was only for girls.” Although the fake conversation itself may not mention gender, the descriptive text of many TikToks only addresses “ladies” or “girls.”
“I know that in today’s climate it’s very important for everyone to feel safe and secure wherever they are,” Williamson said. “I decided to make a gender-neutral video to involve everyone.”
Abandoning rideshare apps entirely in order to feel safer isn’t an option for everyone. For example, in cities across North America, rideshares are replacing or otherwise devastating public transportation. And although these TikToks were developed with rideshares in mind, they can also be used in other situations where someone is feeling unsafe.
Aisha Kourouma, a 24-year-old from New Jersey, says she used one of the TikToks she saved while grocery shopping. After being followed by a pair of men, Kourouma played a video by TikTok user @donteatmycheeseburger since it didn’t specifically mention being in an Uber or Lyft.
“I played the audio as loud as possible, and thankfully already rehearsed with the video in case I ever needed to use it,” Kourouma told Motherboard. “I think it worked better than the typical fake phone call because the perpetrators were able to hear an actual voice. It made them more aware of the fact that someone I trust is watching me and I’m protected.”
There are concerns that the trend may become ineffective over time. For example, if people start to recycle the same audio, then it may be easy to determine that the call is fake. For a Black Muslim woman like Kourouma, sexual harassment often stems from the intersections of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and other bigoted cultural realities. Ultimately, the TikToks can be helpful, but they are not a solution to a problem that extends beyond rideshares.
“Is this enough? Definitely not. It’s unfortunate we need to come up with creative ways to avoid unwanted interaction with strangers, men especially,” Kourouma said. “With each new technique, it makes me wonder how fast they will be desensitized to it.”