More than fame, money, or even career ambitions, kids these days are after clout. Clout, the social currency of influence that can be used to garner jobs, partners, or even just free merch, offers teens perks that they can cash in on for life – and to achieve clout, you have to maintain a popular, engaging social media profile. The video app TikTok has become a fundamental pillar of clout-chasing for young people, and as it increasingly becomes the most popular social media platform among under-25s, ever more teenagers are seeking to capitalise. So what better way to do so, on an infamously global app, than claiming to be involved in the biggest news story affecting the world?
Teenagers are now pretending to have coronavirus on TikTok – and from the moment Covid-19 cases were confirmed in Europe and North America, teens were using the illness to go viral. The Daily Beast reported at the end of January that a Canadian user falsely claimed in a TikTok that his friend had coronavirus, which attracted more than 800,000 likes and over four million views on a single video. Since then, and especially in the UK, where over 300 people have now been diagnosed with the disease, hundreds of teens have claimed to have been infected, to know someone who has been infected, or to have been tested for coronavirus. These videos are not just receiving millions of views, but are now near-impossible to avoid on TikTok’s main “For You” feed.
The hashtag #coronavirus has received an impressive four billion views on the app, and many of the top 100 videos include false claims of diagnosis or teens posting about self-isolation. Many of those users who claimed to have been quarantined for two weeks posted clips of themselves out with friends, on trains, or going to school just days later and, after being accused of lying in previous videos, replied to comments stating that it was simply a joke. One user, @lorch333333, even gained two million views on a TikTok by explaining how she tricked her Instagram followers into believing she had coronavirus. Other users have made TikToks with the explicit intention of trolling, liking the comments they received pointing out why their video was obviously fake.
While the vast majority of claims on TikTok over coronavirus are clearly false, there are some that could potentially be legitimate: in particular, one posted by @syduniverse on Sunday. In the video, the user claims to have tested positive for the virus and shows a series of people in scrub-like suits swabbing her mouth and clearing her room with bin bags; four days earlier, she posted a video about waiting for test results while wearing a face mask. Unlike other users claiming to have contracted coronavirus, @syduniverse has not admitted to lying and has only liked comments from users sending supportive messages, such as those noting that coronavirus is often not dangerous to young people. However, as many TikTok users pointed out, it seems unlikely that someone with the disease would intimately document it (the New Statesman has contacted @syduniverse asking for confirmation that she has indeed tested positive).
Coronavirus’ meme potential is already being realised in other ways on TikTok – jokes about handwashing, quarantining, and the world ending are popular even without false claims of positive tests attached. Songs and sounds related to coronavirus are remarkably common, with the sound clip “Coronavirus Check” used over 17,000 times, the sound clip “coronavirus is coming” used 50,000 times, and the song “Corona time – Red Knight” used in over 320,000 videos. News sources and public bodies, such as the World Health Organisation and the British Red Cross, are also acheiving viral numbers through public service announcements explaining the measures people can take to protect themselves from infection. Some groups have begun to make memes informing users on best practice for washing hands.
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Coronavirus is still in its early stages in the UK and it’s likely that, before improving, the outbreak will get worse. But while this may be bad news for public health and for those people with underlying health conditions, TikTokers will be capitalising on the pandemic – going viral and increasing their clout for a corona-hungry audience.