On TikTok, the user @tythecrazyguy has amassed 3.7 million followers talking about one of the internet’s most popular topics: conspiracy theories. But Ty is not a typical conspiracy theorist. He’s a high school senior who posts rainbow flags during Pride Month, supports Black Lives Matter, and condemns Trump. “I’m a very liberal-minded person and I’m not trying to attract Trump people,” Ty tells Rolling Stone. “I think it’s pretty clear where I stand politically.”
In videos that often garner millions of views, he dishes to followers about what he calls the “ConspiracTEA” of the day. “I wanted to put my own little Generation Z twist on it,” he says. “I wanted to turn them into something that younger people could digest and have fun watching and enjoy.” The trouble with explaining the world’s craziest theories — from Birds Aren’t Real and Flat Earthers to Hollywood coverups and Wayfair-based child sex-trafficking rings — in a compelling and shareable format is it’s also a great way to spread misinformation.
Ty is a bit of an anomaly, since research has repeatedly shown baby boomers are seven to eight times more likely to spread misinformation than college-aged kids, according to Darren Linvill, an associate professor with Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub who studies disinformation on social media. But times could be changing. “Those numbers are based off of research on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube; they’re based off of perhaps an old paradigm and [the fact] that content is often packaged for older audiences,” Linvill says. “Ty here is clearly packaged to appeal to a younger, more progressive audience….This guy isn’t Alex Jones. He’s looking for a very different audience.”
“We need to talk about this,” Ty says at the opening of his videos, holding one AirPod as a microphone. He goes on to gush about everything from whether Princess Diana was murdered or the parentage of Khloe Kardashian to the hollow earth conspiracy theory, and the idea that the government is trying to control us by putting fluoride in our drinking water. Ignoring the fact that most of these are unsubstantiated guesses — and sometimes flat-out getting the facts mixed up — he shares the most compelling “evidence” for each, often ending with his hand clapped over his mouth in dramatic shock. He even has one video explaining “the actual way to survive a plane crash,” that peddles, without caveat, the false theory that the brace position flight safety guidelines instruct passengers to assume in a crash landing is designed to kill passengers instantly rather than save them. “Airlines want you to die?” he asks. Ty insists this is all meant in good fun. “I know when people think of conspiracy theories they think of super dark theories, like 9/11 theories, things like that,” he says. “Growing up, I always steered away from those and was more interested in the light-hearted pop culture theories.”
Genuinely one of the most interesting conspiracTEA theories I’ve ever covered! #conspiracy
Ty readily admits that he entertains at least some of the conspiracy theories. “I’ve always, from a young age, been really obsessed with the what-ifs and things that don’t seem like reality,” he says. The wholly unsubstantiated theory that Wayfair traffics children, for example — one that was circulated widely in QAnon circles last summer — is something he read about that genuinely troubled him. “I came across an article about it that made me concerned, and so I thought posting it would spread that,” he says, adding that he had not realized the theory is popular among QAnon adherents, who believe a satanic cabal of pedophiles is threatening the nation’s children. “I didn’t even know it’s like a very right-wing theory, if I’m being honest.”
The concern is that these ideas could gain a real foothold among people who hadn’t heard of them before. Dr. Kathleen Stansberry, who studies media analytics to understand how data is being used to change our understanding of the world, fears consistent exposure on a platform like TikTok will do the job other social media platforms have done before: making you think your curated information feed represents the whole world. “Once you’ve heard [something] six or seven times, you don’t know you’re part of a community where these videos are becoming more popular,” she says. “It can give the impression that all of TikTok is talking about this and maybe even the impression that that’s what a lot of people [outside the platform] are thinking about. But really, TikTok has been able to determine this kind of content is going to keep you watching.”
Thanks to TikTok’s powerful recommendation engines, and to its so-far murky plans for moderating content, misinformation and disinformation can spread quickly and broadly. If you watch a video that features conspiracy-style thinking, not only will you get served other conspiracy videos, but users with similar viewing habits as your own will also see content like that, according to Stansberry. Appealing to more than one type of viewer can help a creator reach a wider audience. “Even if you’re a user who wouldn’t go seeking out conspiracy-style videos, but you like that face-to-face, confessional, easy style of sharing…it could be a gateway to a larger and more involved look at other conspiracy theories,” she says. “It snowballs quickly on TikTok.”
Likewise, TikTok famously measures time spent on a video, so it’s ideal for creators to keep viewers hanging on every word until the end. Bonus points if you can get a user to leave a comment — whether you’re saying they’re crazy or agreeing with them, it helps the creator reach more users. According to Stansberry, conspiracy theory videos are perfect for this, perhaps even more so because of the time we’re living in: a period of uncertainty in the Covid-19 pandemic and of widespread distrust of established institutions. “Conspiracy-style content is very appealing right now, so it does keep people engaged, even if they’re not going to seek it out themselves.” The hashtags #conspiracy, #conspiracytheory, and #conspiracytheories have 11.3 billion views on TikTok. The content is outrageously popular, and creators like Ty profit off that. “It really evolved into something I didn’t expect,” he says. “I didn’t expect that many people to be as interested in these conspiracy theories. But they’re all meant to be super lighthearted. I never want to make anyone upset with my theories.”
Ty joined TikTok in August 2019. His first post said his friends didn’t think he could get famous on the platform. “Prove them wrong,” read the text in the video, and he urged users to follow him. Since then, he’s slowly found his way to massive numbers. Early on, he mainly posted jokes about being in high school. There are videos about having acne, studying for tests, and ordering McNuggets at McDonald’s. A few went viral, but most have a few thousand views. “My ‘for you’ page was just comedy videos,” he says. “So that was what I was emulating [at first], and I was like, I want to try something original that no one’s done.” He debuted his ConspiracTEA series four months into the pandemic lockdown, in July 2020. The posts got millions of views right away and he promptly shifted to all conspiracy content.
Ty posts some sponsored videos on his page, and has a website where he sells ConspiracTEA hoodies and travel mugs. Abbie Richards, who researches disinformation on the platform, wrote a twitter thread about Ty after he posted a video re-upping last summer’s Wayfair conspiracy theory. In that thread, she observed that accounts like Ty’s have little reason to change the direction they’re heading. “He’s financially incentivized to keep digging deeper and deeper, finding more conspiracies, so he can make more content,” Richards said. “Ty is just one example of a TikToker who has been rewarded for promoting conspiracy theories and incentivized to continue. His success isn’t exceptional, it’s a symptom of an economy that rewards clickbait content which attracts attention.”
As TikTok’s recommendation algorithm continues to evolve, Linvill holds out hope that the younger generation will be more discerning than their fake news–spreading predecessors. “I want to believe that younger Americans are more critical of what they see on social media because they’re digital natives,” he says. “But if it’s packaged specifically for them, then it might be more likely to break through.”
Already there are signs Ty is drawing views not just from young progressives who may see the hot goss as comedy, but true believers, too. One of his less popular videos celebrated Biden’s win in November 2020. “Y’all human rights are gonna be protected for the next 4 years ahhhh” he wrote over a clip of him dancing to Becky G in front of a green screen of the election map. “Absolutely love your videos but I do not agree with this,” one user commented. Another offered an idea for a new post: “You should make a video about how [Biden] cheated and all the proof just saying.”
When it comes to the right-wing commenters, Ty says he simply ignores them. “Comments like those are definitely not the target audience,” he says. “I’ve gotten tons of requests to do series that are really right-wing or anti-Biden, and I just ignore them because I would never put something like that that doesn’t align with my moral beliefs.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include an interview with @tythecrazyguy.