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“Do Your Thing TikTok”: The Problem with Surveilling Strangers

“Do Your Thing TikTok”: The Problem with Surveilling Strangers

Last week, a saga of videos claiming to expose a cheating husband on an airplane went viral on TikTok. If you’re not familiar, we’ll catch you up; in a series of now-deleted videos, a woman documented two strangers on an airplane who she decided were acting too friendly. “If this man is your husband flying @United Airlines, flight 2140, from Houston to New York,” she captioned one of the videos, “he’s probably going to be staying with Katy tonight.” In subsequent posts, she shared personal information about the presumed cheater (based on a wedding ring she spotted on his finger), including his daughter’s name and where he lived. The series ended with a call to action, with the woman captioning the video: “Do your thing TikTok. #findthewife #cheatinghusbands.”

TikTok indeed did its thing. Before they were taken down, the videos had received over 30 million views. The man in the video had been identified, along with his wife — and both were being harassed on social media.

This plane drama is far from the only instance of someone going viral for airing out a stranger’s business. Earlier in June, a TikTok with 2.1 million likes was posted. “If your name is Saphire and you have a boyfriend in the NJ/NY area, I just overheard two girls on NJ Transit talking about how your boyfriend is going to break up with you in two days,” the video was captioned. “She basically asked if he was single and his response was ‘I will be in two days’ and they were giggling while stalking your Instagram. I hope you see this so you can dump him first.” 

@bbfosty

she also said that you just followed her on instagram and she followed you back so you wouldnt get suspicious UPDATE: guys Sapphire was the girl on the train i overheard talking (i misunderstood the names) the girl we’re looking for had just followed Sapphire Sweeney on instagram. we are back to square one🤦‍♀️

♬ queen of disaster with sparkles – ˚ ˚。° ⋆♡˚🎀 ꒰ ྀི ◞ ˕ ก ꒱ ⭐️

TikTok, once again, “did its thing.” The video made it to Sapphire and her friend Anajah, who promptly posted a response.

It turns out that the original poster got the story wrong. The girls weren’t talking about someone named Sapphire; Sapphire actually was one of the girls on the train, and nobody was being made fun of.

@sapphiremsweeney

My duet video was reported so im reposting this video of @Anajah explaining full story of @bri foster not being a girls girl #njtransit #nyc

♬ original sound – Sapphire Sweeney

In her response, Anajah came to Sapphire’s defense and addressed the original poster. “Why are you listening to Black women’s conversation and recording it, lying, making up scenarios, posting it on the internet?” she asked. “And now people are sending my friend Sapphire death threats.”

Whether it was a misinterpretation or a flat-out lie, the original poster ultimately caused harm to these strangers under the guise of being a “girl’s girl.” Just like the plane video, the people involved got harassed on the internet over a moment that they thought was private. 

We don’t know the extent to which these individuals were impacted by the sea of strangers sending them hate, but it doesn’t seem to matter — not to the TikTok sleuths, at least.

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The point of these viral callouts and “exposing” strangers committing perceived transgressions isn’t to make others’ lives better. For the posters, the goal is to get clicks. And for the TikTok sleuths, the goal is to soak up every salacious detail and perpetuate more drama for entertainment. Above all, there’s a sense of self-righteousness that stems from this kind of digital vigilante justice.

The unfortunate reality is that this could happen to anyone. Cornell professor Dr. Brooke Duffy describes the phenomenon of feeling that you could be recorded at any moment by a stranger as “imagined surveillance.” People have become desensitized to the humanity of the subjects in these online call-out videos, Dr. Duffy argues, “so many of the boundaries between personal and professional, between celebrity and ordinary, have slipped away.”

By dramatizing the lives of strangers and sharing information that isn’t yours (or even correct), the idea that nothing is off-limits is reinforced. While it may seem like fun and games now, what happens if you stumble across a video directed at you?

This isn’t to condemn people for gossiping or partaking in drama in general. We’re all guilty of having a tea-spilling sesh with a bestie, and as long as that conversation remains private, it’s harmless. But what we’re seeing with these videos is individuals purposely elevating strangers’ drama to a massive scale that is not harmless. Real people are targeted, while the swarm of internet sleuths walk away with a sense of vicarious excitement and moral entitlement. 

friends gossiping, representative of story about TikTok and social media gossip

People are weaponizing the term “girl’s girl,” shaming others under the guise of providing support. So the next time you come across a similar post, and feel called to engage in the drama, remember that it’s really not that deep – it’s just a crusade for clicks.

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