In the wake of the Astroworld tragedy, which has left eight people dead and hundreds more injured, conspiracy theories about the incident have been swirling on all social media platforms, ranging from anti-vaccine misinformation to theories about concertgoers being injected by drugs to QAnon influencers promoting the idea that headliner Travis Scott’s management company orchestrated the deadly event.
But arguably no platform has played host to these theories more than TikTok, where dozens of videos suggesting that Scott was conducting a bizarre demonic ritual during the festival have gone massively viral.
Much of the attention has focused on the layout of the stage (which conspiracy theorists claim resembles an upside-down cross leading into a fire portal), as well as the intense opening sequence of the show. One of the most popular videos, which has 23 million views, features a hologram of a winged bat creature at the start of the show, framed by towers of flames. “Not even 40 seconds in,” the caption reads. The comments are awash with conspiracy theories about Satan and demonic presences. “Look at the symbolism!! A DOVE, a symbol of the human soul, ON FIRE?!?! They knew what they was doing. This is pure evil,” one of the top comments, which has 77,000 likes, reads. Another video with more than 800,000 views shows a photo of the stage with the caption, “For those saying this wasn’t satanic. 8 pillars of flames and 8 people dead.”
Others have focused on the fact that concertgoers had to walk through an entrance shaped like Scott’s open mouth to get into the concert, drawing comparisons to a painting by a follower of Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch titled “Christ in Limbo” (the 1575 painting, which also depicts a winged demon vomiting dice, a bevy of naked snake charmers, and a pelican reading a book is supposed to represent Jesus’s descent into Hell prior to his resurrection — but to be fair, it also makes Hell look pretty lit).
Such conspiracy theories have been particularly rampant on Christian TikTok and Spiritual TikTok. Many creators are attempting to use the Astroworld tragedy as a launching point to foment moral panic about sexually explicit or violent themes in music in general. “When we sing songs about killing, violence, guns, and drugs, you are inviting these demonic spirits into your presence,” one smiling creator says in one video with 266,000 views. “That concert had such a demonic anointing people were actually seeing it manifest in the natural.”
Some creators are trying to fight back against the spread of conspiracy theories about Astroworld on TikTok. “Let’s have a conversation about some of the vile shit y’all are doing on this app right now,” creator Jessica Dean, also known as @bloodbathbey0nd, said in one video targeted at Spiritual TikTok. “Imagine having to process the loss of your 14-year-old child while the entire internet is trying to convince itself he’s a sacrifice to Satan,” she concluded in the video.
“We’ve seen time and time again, that TikTok is a platform which ‘conspiratorial content’ can and will perform very well,” Dean tells Rolling Stone. “TikTok incentivises wacky, click-baity, content aimed towards young children. This is just another conspiracy in a long line of conspiracies we have seen skyrocket in popularity in no small part due to this platform.”
For some time, TikTok did not appear to be taking action against many of these videos. As Rolling Stone previously reported, as of yesterday afternoon if you searched “Astroworld” on the app, “Astroworld demonic” was the second result to autopopulate in the results. When asked about this, a representative from TikTok said the content violates community guidelines and the company is working on taking action against it, including within search suggestions. Yet misspelled versions or similar phrases, such as “astroworld denomic,” “astroworld conspiricy,” and “astroworld portal to hell,” still show up in the top results.
TikTok has a history of failing to curb the spread of conspiracy theories on the platform. Most famously, the platform last summer gave rise to the Wayfair sex trafficking conspiracy theory, which suggested that the retailer was smuggling children in furniture containers due to some high-priced items on its website.
As Rolling Stone has previously reported, TikTok has also failed to purge QAnon and QAnon-adjacent content from the platform, such as a far-right Polish “documentary” about a child sex trafficking ring that went viral on the app last summer.
“Misinformation and more subtle hate speech are some of the more challenging things for platforms to moderate right now,” Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor in information science at the University of Colorado, Boulder specializing in social media ethics, previously told Rolling Stone, “in part because creating consistent guidelines around what constitutes misinformation is really challenging.”
From Rolling Stone US