The nightmare that occured at the Astroworld festival is not something to be taken lightly. Many young people have been deeply and permanently scarred by their experience, and now 10 have lost their lives. Everyone can agree that this event was a tragedy that must be addressed. However, instead of standing by as formal investigations into the incident play out, a significant amount of people on social media are claiming to know exactly what happened. Their theory? Demons.
Almost immediately after the news about Astroworld became public, rumors were spreading, along with dangerous, ominous rhetoric. TikTok user @ngabriellee posted a video pointing out how the “beginning of the show had eight flames and a burning dove.” Another creator with the username @psychadvice posted a multiple part “analysis” of the psychology of the event, with many references to the battle between “good and evil.” Her comment section includes statements like that from @thickfitsteph, who states that “He [Travis Scott] wants to be worshipped as a God. He loves knowing people will die for him. He even had satanic messages and crosses in the show.” These “theories” are synthesized in multiple videos, some from larger creators, some from smaller, all claiming the same thing; that Travis Scott purposefully sacrificed his fans in a satanic ritual.
Claims like these are incredibly dangerous, since they take advantage of the public’s search for answers to advance a personal agenda. Figures like Nik “Big Nik” Keswani, known online for his faith-focused content, have played an instrumental role in leveraging social media to broadcast these claims to a wider audience. While other creators may be using the tragedy for social gain, Keswani and those like him seem to truly believe in what they are saying. When Big Nik makes a somber video warning his followers that Astroworld is a sign that “Satan is using celebrities like Travis Scott to steal your soul,” he does so in what appears to be good faith, but that doesn’t negate the harmfulness of the content. Claims like these incite fear in the viewer, especially when that viewer is of a younger age, like Keswani’s fanbase. Furthermore, this conspiratorial thinking is dangerous for any age group. As we’ve seen among Qanon followers, conspiracy theories can become an addiction quickly, resulting in isolation from loved ones, paranoia, and an incessant need to always be online and up to date on all things related to the conspiracy. It can become an obsession, and overanalyzed details of the event like how the stage was shaped like an upside down cross, or how the festival entrance bore a resemblance to medieval depictions of the gates of Hell, only make things worse.
Few platforms have done more to spread disinformation in so short a period of time as TikTok. There was a time when much of TikTok was convinced that Helen Keller was either racist or faking her deaf-blindness, and for over a year now, “shifting” has become an obsession, in which community members claim to be able to shift realities through intense practice. These crazes are commonplace on TikTok; the neverending “for you page” has a tendency to feed users the same genre of content over and over again, making certain niche communities feel larger via exposure, which encourages participation. Now, combine this platform with fear-mongering conspiracies, and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s important to acknowledge how vulnerable kids and teenagers are in a post-COVID society; for many, it has been almost two years since they’ve experienced normal social interactions. They’re spending more time online than before the pandemic, which means they have a higher risk of being exposed to this dangerous rhetoric. Engaging in conspiracies such as this one may fill the need for community that young people are experiencing nowadays, but the promotion of paranoia is incredibly damaging.
Even when ignoring the harmful effects of this content, one cannot deny how disrespectful it is to be casually theorizing about an ongoing tragedy. Online content creators co-opting cases like Astroworld to support their own agendas or entertain their true crime hobby do not do anyone any good. These videos are not only propagating false information, they are taking advantage of the fears of vulnerable children. One can argue this is grounds for social media platforms to remove the harmful content, but this practice tends to embolden fanatics, as it creates the illusion of censorship from an evil corporate overlord. The best work that can be done to defend against this content is by individuals taking on responsibility; parents need to be aware of what their children are engaging with online, or at the very least limit their screen time, and online creators themselves need to be mindful of their audiences. If the goal of a creator is to share their faith, it’s best to steer clear of fear-based content that can psychologically harm users of any age. Additionally, it’s important to engage both yourself and your loved ones in civil, yet challenging conversations, in order to open up the echo chambers that develop on social media apps like TikTok.