It drip-feeds it to you’: How long it took me to get radicalised on TikTok

By Mason Berlinka

Published Nov 26, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 8 minutes

TikTok, a place of algorithmic beauty. A social media site that knows exactly what you want, when you want it. Barely any searching is done on the platform, all you’ve got to do is simply lean back and let your For You Page (FYP) take the reins. But what happens when TikTok’s AI-powered feed starts pushing you down the wrong path?

What was once a service for watching cats go viral and having content creators lose their shirt, is now a place that is pushing toxic behaviours, fake news, and problematic right-wing rhetoric. Without even realising it, you’ll find yourself radicalised.

This is one of the very real dangers of TikTok, an app that takes care of everything for its users. All you need to do is prepare for a thumb-cramp from scrolling too much. While it’s undeniable that the platform has a lot to offer, it can also promote problematic views and ideas targeted towards impressionable brains. In order to shed light on just how easy it is for someone to end up on the wrong side of TikTok, I took it upon myself to investigate, armed with nothing more than a burner account and some hours to kill.

So, how willing is TikTok to show me more radicalising, inflammatory content just to keep me scrolling? Short answer? Very.

Getting radicalised on TikTok: the ground rules

Let’s start with some basic ground rules. A fresh account is a must—I’m using one with hopefully very little expository information about myself through cross-website data collection and cookies. Next, I’m planning on scrolling through my FYP only, seeing how far I can get purely by interacting with this feature’s algorithm. This means that searching for any toxic or alt-right phrases in the app’s search bar is off-limit as I want to keep the process as organic as possible.

My ideal end result is to be fed something on my FYP that’s either incredibly inflammatory or possibly endangering. I’d also like to see if the algorithm does in fact show me a consistent stream of right-wing content—more specifically, offensive content that incites hate and perpetuates a very narrow and exclusive worldview.

If I can get to a spot like that on TikTok, I’ll call it a job well done. So let’s get into it.

Forays into an unfiltered FYP

My first step into this experiment consists primarily of an unfiltered FYP with an algorithm that doesn’t know me yet—that doesn’t quite understand what it is I’m looking for. ‘Satisfying’ sand-cutting videos, stitched with other people’s content, and daytime television clips plague my bottomless feed. I can’t seem to find a hook yet. An anime blind unboxing video perhaps?

Side note: anime is often co-opted online by alt-right communities and suspect individuals—so maybe this is a good way in. I press like and watch the unboxing clip more times than I’d like to admit.

I make sure to scroll cellularly so that I can curate the page a bit more with the “not interested” option. TikTok seems to think I’m very interested in police clips. I feel like I’m on to something with this content, so I start chasing it even more.

Almost immediately, bingo. I’m shown very shallow British military propaganda followed by a short sound bite from Piers Morgan’s Donald Trump interview. This is probably going to be easier than I thought. I make sure to engage with the comments—liking and saving the video as I hover over the clip. I want to show the algorithm that I’m interested and engaged in the content it’s feeding me.

Chasing the hate: Andrew Tate finally shows his problematic face

A new day begins and I’m fired up and ready to get scrolling. The first thing I see? An esoteric montage of nihilistic, poignant clips which begins with a segment from Joe Rogan’s podcast. Rogan, of course, is renowned for both his personal controversies as well as his by-proxy endorsement of overtly problematic individuals which he features on his Spotify podcast. This video is surprisingly intense, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.

The next thing on the feed is an equally doomism-inspired montage highlighting the dangers of mass media consumption. I’m getting warmer.

As I continue scrolling, I’m hit with an essay video about Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, a former math teacher-turned-domestic terrorist who was responsible for the deaths of three people before his capture in 1996. His manifesto has since become a left-wing liberal obsession in recent years—thanks to the man’s distaste for the advancements of society and a desire to return to simpler, more primitive life.

Oh dear, it seems like we’re going the wrong way now. This is radicalising content, sure, but on the other end of the spectrum. TikTok now knows I’m ready to take a metaphorical leap off of the edge but it’s not sure which building yet. I was looking for right-wing propaganda and brainwashing, instead I’ve found myself bathing in a beacon of radical leftism. I suppose this is a sort of early success for the experiment, but not where I wanted to be exactly. I notify the app that I’m not interested and move on.

Here we go—my FYP has organically shown me an Andrew Tate video. I never thought I’d be so happy to see this bald bastard’s face on my feed. The clip shows the former kickboxer-turned-phoney philosopher talking about how dangerous London is, a typical talking point of Tories. With 100,000 likes on the clip, I engage with it as much as I can and move on.

https://www.tiktok.com/@tateindefatigable/video/7168551166069034245

What follows is a slew of high-profile US marine compilation videos, possible Russian psychological operations (PSYOPs) inflaming the current unstable global climate, more Tate clips—one from an account called MasculineInfluence—another Morgan appearance, this time of him talking about fat shaming, and a video titled “pure Brexit tackles.”

I take my time watching a clip of the overtly sketchy Hustlers University founder talking about how great England used to be. He stokes the old colonial flame as much as he can—it’s quite sad to watch honestly. But it’s all part of the mission here.

About 70 per cent of my FYP right now is some form of Tate video, a man who took the world by storm over the summer as his problematic opinions and thoughts reached an impressionable generation—and continues to do so with his reinstated Twitter account following Technoking Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform. But is this enough of a radicalisation?

It’s close, but I’m looking for something stronger, something that could push someone a step too far.

Further down the rabbit hole I go

Sigma male content follows, a North Korean propaganda video next. Wait, what? I’m actually in awe of the mix of content I’m being fed on this account. On what basis is North Korea getting through in the first place? This video has 2.4 million likes, by the way.

After swiping on, I’m starting to get subtle hints of racism now. A football video appears comparing female footballers’ celebrations to their male counterparts, the joke being that the male footballers’ celebration shown is someone doing a Nazi salute after scoring. Comments supporting the salute can be found underneath the video. I save and interact.

@irenesolosxx

Low key wish my dad looked at me like that #northkorea #kimjongun #xyzbca

♬ original sound - Paty

I seem to be getting closer to a darker, more extreme end of the platform as more ambiguous, racial, and edgy jokes begin to surface. It’s beginning to get exhausting to sift through this much trash but I’m determined.

‘It drip-feeds it to you’: How long it took me to get radicalised on TikTok

I’m also seeing videos imploring Britain to return to the way it was as a colonial power. Clearly nobody did too well in history class, given that we were one of the most oppressive powers at play during the time of colonialism. It’s obvious that the people engaging with this content are only steps away from a radical edge.

Steven Crowder clips from his ‘Change My Mind’ series show up. Then religious content begins to creep through. TikTok thinks I’m a young, right-wing, religious conservative at this point. The red flags are firmly planted. I’m now desperately searching for the next clip that will bring the experiment home.

A video claiming Israel is the “one group you shouldn’t talk about,” praising Kanye West for speaking up. This upsets me, but I’m at the door of anti-semitism now and I’m ready to see myself in.

Breaking through to full-on conspiracy and PSYOPs

Looks like I’ve made it. Videos talking about a global cabal that controls the world order are slowly seeping in—a cabal that wants to take away your personal freedoms and warp your perceptions. The next clip is one pointing out the fallacies of the LGBTQ+ movement. Comments are turned off on this one. Next up is an inflammatory video calling left-leaning liberal people the real fascists. Accounts promoting an “escape from the matrix” are more abundant than ever.

I do come across one that actually makes me laugh out loud. It’s a conspiracy video talking about nuclear explosions on Mars millions of years ago. It’s pretty out there and possibly taking me off track but I can’t help but watch it through.

Finally, a genuine nationalist and racist appears on my feed. It’s an account that looks a lot like a PSYOP, honestly. It’s someone masquerading as a nationalist’s ideal woman. The TikTok that ended up on my FYP is a slideshow with a blurry selfie of herself first, followed by screenshots from right-wing news and world happenings. “Europe is finally waking up,” she says. Her account is filled with videos warning of a great replacement—a conspiracy peddled by fascists and racists. I’d finally seen something truly disgusting, and it felt awful.

‘It drip-feeds it to you’: How long it took me to get radicalised on TikTok

After two days of consistent scrolling, I can successfully consider myself radicalised on TikTok. Every video on my feed is some form of right-wing media or targeted harassment aimed at the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups—many of the clips crossing the personal boundaries I’d set myself. A fresh account with a scrolling habit leaning towards right-wing, male media has been completely flooded with this type of dangerously inflammatory content. I can’t help but worry for anyone who has fallen into a hole like this in earnest. It’s a dark, scary, and worrisome place to be.

The targeted victims of algorithmic social media

Something I’ve neglected to mention is how much of this content is curated and published with one specific target in mind— lonely and insecure men. This is particularly evident when we consider creators such as Tate or Hamza, who are hyper-critical of femininity in men too. It’s easy to see how a number of men can gravitate towards this form of content, especially given the expectations in society, or their own insecurities about themselves. I struggled a lot with my own masculinity and femininity growing up, and may have very well been swayed by these types of creators if I’d been exposed to them at an impressionable age.

Things are always changing, and progress is being made but it’s clear that so many of these people feel alone. And this leads them to seek out community in like-minded individuals—a community that quickly radicalises itself when no other voices are allowed to enter.

The Nazis and racists are one thing, but it’s hard not to feel bad for the men who are being targeted by so much of this hyper-masculine, Tate-esque content. From what I’ve witnessed in those clips’ comments sections, these are people who have been let down in life, who faced difficulties, and harboured resentment and grudges into their youth as well as adulthood.

And this just goes on to highlight the platform’s insidious nature. Individuals are essentially at the mercy of an algorithm that prioritises attention economy, and they’re at the mercy of their own inherent loneliness and resentment.

It also makes me worry about impressionable minds, the children being subjected to this platform. It’s hard to take a step back and make assessments for yourself when it feels like the whole world is projecting the same thing you’re thinking. The world that your FYP is curating for you offers very little space for critical thoughts and freedom to challenge the supposed ideals. There are glimmers of hope in the comment sections, but they’re often hidden among the trash.

A quick search shows that, though TikTok has support in place for guardians, little does it acknowledge the problem it poses to the growing generations. The video-sharing platform allows parents to set up restrictions and boundaries but stuff manages to slip through all the time. If I’d ever feel brave enough to repeat this experiment, I think I’d try it with an age-restricted account, to really dive into how problematic content filters through all the same.

In just two days, I’d managed to completely change the face of my FYP by simply guiding the algorithm towards a certain direction. In the process, I’d also subjected myself to some really disgusting content, with TikTok showing no signs of slowing down on the pump unless I’d decided to steer away from it myself. The algorithm picks up on something you favour, and drip feeds it to you—regardless of how negative or hateful the content is. I think I’ve shown just how easy it is to be subjected to this sort of stuff. If you’re above the age of 16, your feed is practically unfiltered and your account unprotected.

Anyone can make it down the rabbit hole I found myself in. This experiment was a strange, dark, and scary journey into a side of TikTok I honestly don’t want to revisit. Now, it’s time to nuke my dummy account and never step foot into this world again.

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