Picture this: you’re sitting on a bench outside, sipping coffee and taking a well-needed break from a shopping spree. A stranger comes up to you holding a bouquet of flowers. They want you to have it. It’s not really practical for you to carry them around all day but you try to be nice. The interaction ends quickly and before you can protest or say anything more than “thank you?”, the man has vanished, all while you sat there being filmed by two of his friends, set up with a tripod, several feet away.
Unbeknown to you, the video they’ve taken will later be posted online for hundreds of thousands of people to gawk at. You’ve been used in a shallow attempt at kindness that really only served to boost the ego and the following of the person who filmed you.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice when people are kind. Heck, it’s even nicer to get free things, but when placed in the parasitic context of the TikTok machine, the experience quickly turns cold and empty. The subjects of the videos are used and have very little chance to give consent to be in the content creator’s final edit, unless they want to chase the assailant down and insist they delete the clip—if they’ve even realised they were being filmed in the first place, that is.
The experience described above is very similar to what happened to Melbourne-based Maree, who recently shared her story with The Guardian on 31 January 2023. “I wish I’d trusted my instincts and said no, it was all so quick,” she told the publication.
The woman confronted the two men standing nearby with a tripod, who almost immediately both denied having filmed her. The video, of course, went viral and saw Maree—a woman in her 60s—described as “elderly” by The Daily Mail.
In its article, the British tabloid went on to state that Maree was “moved to tears” by the ‘random’ act of kindness. “That was just cruel, I thought, to do that to a person—the whole ‘pathetic’ scenario…” she told The Guardian. “I am in my 60s, I have got grey hair, but it kind of upset my sense of how I’m perceived. I’d never really thought of myself as looking old.”
The video, posted by 22-year-old TikTok user Harrison Pawluk, received 50 million views, and 10 million likes. App users had become voyeurs into a small part of someone’s day. Although another successful video for the content creator, it left Maree feeling “dehumanised” and exploited for money. She had essentially become someone’s clickbait.
While feel-good content is nothing new to the wider internet at large, TikTok as a platform has a tendency to specifically push this style forward thanks to its short form video format. The likes of which has propped up allow a myriad of strange content creators to thrive, from the controversial Scar Girl to the clay slapping Pottery Boy.
Niche creators aside, it’s clear that kind content is still king online. This becomes evidently clear when you consider the fact that the #randomactsofkindness on the app has a staggering 416 million views. It does leave me wondering if people realise how exploitative this format can be.
A similar instance from November 2022 saw Australian TikToker Luke Erwin pretend to have a broken arm, and then ask strangers to open a bottle for him. Truly the most thrilling of social experiments if you ask me. In one of his viral videos on the matter, an elderly couple seem to ignore his call for aid. In the clip’s caption, Erwin pleads users to “be the one that helps.”
As you can imagine, the couple were torn to shreds in the comments section, which caught the attention of their daughter, Amal Awad who wrote for the Australian publication SBS News, pleading with people to view the video in a wider context. Awad pointed out that this type of content is often misleading and doesn’t give members of the public the space needed for a day of “respite” after shocking news, as was the case for her parents—or the freedom to, you know, not be accosted by random strangers on the street.
As Awad accurately pointed out, viewers know virtually nothing of the people featured in these popular formats. We’re all just being fed a narrative made to pull at one’s heartstrings.
These videos, while popular for obvious reasons, are missing an essential element—consent and mutual respect. For starters, more often than not no release forms or data protection are involved in the interaction. The nature and power of social media enables these content creators to act freely, regardless of whether or not they’re legally allowed to go up to civilians, filming and bothering them.
Algorithmic video platforms push young people in particular to pursue anything in the name of notoriety and exposure. And due to the extremely fast moving current of platforms like TikTok, issues such as this get swept under the carpet a lot easier—particularly when TikTok already has its hands full trying to wipe the internet of Andrew Tate.
Unfortunately in the 21st century, we don’t have much control over whether or not we’ll end up online, or at the mercy of a prankster or ‘good samaritan’ who wants to cash in on unsuspecting passers-by. These shallow and all too often cringey content creators need a wake-up call, and social media giants need to do a better job of protecting our right not to be filmed without consent.
2022 was filled to the brim with wild online shenanigans and rogue conspiracy theories. As we move further into 2023, it’s becoming abundantly clear that this year will be no different. First, we had #LashGate, now netizens are up in arms about potentially one of the strangest scandals ever: whether or not an 18-year-old TikToker is lying about having a pretty extensive facial scar.
Annie Bonelli—or as she’s dubbed on the internet, ‘Scar Girl’—first caught the eyes of sceptical gen Zers after they noticed that the facial scar Bonelli proudly showed off in videos was beginning to change. Citing dramatic shifts in colour, shape and size, viewers became convinced that the influencer was purposefully fabricating the scar in order to try and stand out among the sea of creators on the platform.
The changes everyone is referring to involve the scar switching from being rather thin and red to looking much larger and brown. This is something Bonelli claims happened after she sought treatment and was subsequently left with a chemical burn, thereby altering the scar and making it appear drastically different.
In an interview with NBC News, Bonelli explained: “Scars can come in all different colours, all different shapes and sizes, and they can change throughout healing, especially when further injury is done to them. The issue is people don’t understand that there were two separate injuries, which is really more why people are stuck on it.”
Now, rather than approach the subject cautiously and kindly, the internet did what it does best—it went absolutely feral and conjured up a million and one theories regarding not only why Bonelli was lying but analysing practically all of her videos in attempts to categorically prove that her scar is fake. By the end of January, there were already 510 million views on videos associated with the search ‘Scar Girl’ on TikTok.
The devil works hard, but gen Z netizens with a loose hypothesis and a front-facing camera work much harder.
This online conspiracy became so widespread that even TikTok doctors and other skincare and chemical professionals were chiming in with their expert opinions.
Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communication at Cornell University, told NBC that the interest in Bonelli’s scar stems from the online act of “authenticity policing.” This is when people continuously scrutinise a person’s self-presentation as fake or deceptive.
The expert continued: “It speaks to a lot of the ways in which, not just women, but influencers are treated.” “What do you want to do when you attack someone on social media? There’s just this recurrent critique that they are faking it somehow. They’re faking their success, they’re faking their looks, they’re faking their career. And so much of that is tied into the larger culture of social media, where people are trying to suss out what’s real and what’s performed in these spaces,” Duffy continued.
For the most part, netizens were incredibly divided online over whether or not the scar was genuine. While there were a number of people who truly believed the scar was fake—and did provide some compelling evidence for that argument—there were an equal number of others who fearlessly defended Bonelli.
In a supposed attempt to directly respond to the media tidal wave, Bonelli went on the BFFs Pod show and spoke about both the online response and her own story regarding the scar. When questioned over whether or not she had invented the scar for ‘clout’ purposes, seemingly playing up to the idea, Bonelli ironically replied: “I’m just so calculated, I’m four steps ahead of you.”
Sticking with her story throughout, the creator went on to explain that the way in which she got the marking was incredibly personal and not something that she wanted to share online. This of course is incredibly justified, however, unfortunately—in the eyes of paranoid audiences—it backs up their theory of the scar being fake.
Now, we might never know whether or not the scar is real, and in many ways it isn’t our business to speculate. However, in the words of BFFs Pod host Dave Portnoy: “This may be the greatest con in the history of cons.” Regardless of the truth, Bonelli has successfully managed to reach viral status from the controversy alone.
In many ways, the ‘scar scam’ follows the same pattern as some of the most successful influencer marketing ploys. Take the aforementioned #LashGate, beauty TikToker Mikayla Nogueira knew how obvious it was that she’d applied a false lash, despite claiming that the magical mascara wand was the only tool used. In practically tricking us all into kicking up a fuss, Nogueira helped catapult the L’Oréal product she’d been paid to promote into online stardom.
Even Kendall Jenner botched up slicing a cucumber in what appeared to be an attempt to promote her own tequila brand.
The Scar Girl story is inherently very similar to #LashGate, except that in this case, instead of promoting a beauty product, Bonelli is promoting herself. And in this day and age, you can’t really blame someone for that, can you?