If you didn’t know better, you’d think the entirety of TikTok’s Gen Z population had rapidly aged into late Gen X-ers and Boomers last week. They’re spreading conspiracy theories about Satanic imagery, spotting rituals to create portals to hell in a rapper’s musical performances. They’re labelling run-of-the-mill phishing scams as “elaborate attempts to kidnap young women.” They’re emphatically promising that, if you use a certain new-agey trip-hop rhythm, within five minutes of hearing it, your “dreams will come true.”
It all reads like a chain email disseminated by someone’s great aunt who only learned to use the internet last week. Instead, they’re TikTok trends shared largely by people in their teens and 20s, many of whom have presumably been using the internet in some capacity before they even knew how to read. Basically, Gen Z has been acting like Boomers. Or, more accurately, Gen Z has been proving that being naive — on the internet and elsewhere — truly has no age.
On TikTok, I’m constantly being bombarded with content from Gen Z creators who seem optimistically gullible at best, and sinisterly exploitable at worst. They’ll share messages about how something big is about to happen to them in the next week, and the same will happen to you if only you comment on the video. In others, they’ll repeat theories of how the tragedy of Astroworld was the intentional result of Travis Scott’s recreation of Hieronymus Bosch’s painted depictions of hell throughout the festival, a type of offering to Satan himself.
All of these are basically a modern version of the “share this post or your mom will die” Facebook post and the “tips to avoid being raped” emails I began receiving in chain form around age 12. I say this as someone who’s arguably a member of Gen Z herself, born in 1996.
We’re all part of the problem here, though. We’ve built up these classifications and assumptions about how age determines our media literacy, but the reality is, it’s only the media itself that changes, not the way we navigate it.
The concept of the chain letter is hundreds, potentially thousands of years old. Buddhist texts from the 9th century encouraged readers to study their contents and circulate them widely, promising luck to whoever copied down their messages on palm-leaves and papyrus and protected them in “scented wrappings.” Utilizing an organized postal system, varieties of these texts took on chain-letter form in the 19th and 20th centuries wherein recipients were told to mail a copy of the text to three others, as well as repeat a prayer for nine days, or else face eternal punishment.
With the advent of email, and later, social media, such messages continued to proliferate, whether it was a “forward this to five of your loved ones” message or a “reshare this post if you love Jesus, ignore if you love Satan” Facebook image. There isn’t a ton of history of how and why the chain letter took its digital form, but in all likelihood, it was a natural transition from one form of communication to another. Particularly when these forms were still new to users, the chain email or chain Facebook post was an easy, even fun way of engaging with the medium. For a time, getting an email saying that if you forwarded the message to 12 friends you’d have the best day ever, was probably exciting and charming, regardless of whether you believed in it.
Such promises of prosperity and dreams coming true sit at the ethos of these TikTok trends about utilizing a specific sound. One viral example is titled “Time in Oblivion,” while another is called “👑Jєѕιѕ ιѕ кιиg αи∂ ℓσνєѕ υ👑,” both of which are instrumental only. It’s such an easy task to briefly film yourself with a particular song or message, that you’re inclined to think, “Why not?” And for the most part, it’s not as if any of this actually hurts anyone, besides maybe getting their hopes up.
These practices are tied to the thread of Satanic Panic that’s also proliferating on TikTok. Beyond just sharing for good luck or because you love god, another popular brand of chain email is that which attempts to warn of nefarious activity. In 1986, for example, a chain letter was distributed claiming that Procter and Gamble supported the Church of Satan. In the early emails I received telling me how to avoid being sexually assaulted, some unknown writer would state that they’d heard from a friend of a cousin whose dog is on a police force that traffickers and sexual assaulters had collected a new series of tactics, and that to avoid falling victim, we needed to be aware. Such advice included ignoring the sounds of babies crying on your doorstep, as it was only an audio recording intended to trap you, and to always check under your car before entering it, as someone might be lurking beneath it waiting to cut your Achilles tendon. To jog my memory, I tried to find evidence of such emails, but instead only found a writeup of a TikTok sharing similar advice.
Like the Satanic Panic that colors the Travis Scott conversation, these shared threads of tips and warnings all originate from the same place of fear, conspiracy and falsehoods. Of course women experience random violence, and of course it’s wise to pay attention to your surroundings if you walk home alone at night. But rumors that traffickers are marking target’s cars with zip ties (a theory that went viral on TikTok this spring) have all been debunked. Neither human trafficking nor sexual assault are predominately carried out by strangers — victims often know the perpetrators.
Yet, TikToks echoing the same messages of these early chain emails perpetuate the idea that we ought to be most scared of hoards of random strangers, when the reality of the situation is just as horrifying. As with the Travis Scott case, the narrative that 10 people died while crushed under the weight of a surging crowd doesn’t need an element of Satan to be disturbing.
But perhaps all of this is a way of coping. Maybe it’s more comforting to believe that Astroworld is the result of malevolent forces than human irresponsibility, that human traffickers are kidnapping children when it’s their own parents who subject them to these terrors and that we can make miracles happen by listening to a little song. Whether it’s being shared through papyrus letters or through TikToks, there’s really very little difference. How we consume these messages may change through generations, but our credulity remains the same.