Teens are pretending to have coronavirus for likes—and they’re succeeding.
A teenager in Vancouver, Canada, on Tuesday posted a Tik Tok video of a boy wearing a breathing mask and hoodie in a school lunch room and coughing into trash cans in a hallway. The person behind the video is shown dialing 9-1-1, though it’s unclear if he actually does so. Then, a screenshot of a news article appears: “First presumptive case of coronavirus confirmed in B.C.”
“Our friend was being monitored for Coronavirus,” the clip reads. “He had to call 911 if he started coughing violently. Turns out he had it [grimacing emoji].”
“That’s him” appears onscreen, pointing to the picture of the unidentified friend in the article. The poster captions the clip, “Not a joke…” and soundtracked it to yungtubesock’s “Oh no! (I got a disease),” a popular TikTok soundbite.
The video has gone, well, viral, with 4.1 million views, 817,000 likes, and 5,100 comments on TikTok. It is also bogus.
“It’s fake. He’s doctored the news story in the video,” Stephen May, a spokesman for the British Columbia Department of Health, told The Daily Beast. “The actual story doesn’t have a picture of that person in it. We only have one confirmed case in B.C., and that’s the one that’s been reported.” The diagnosed patient is a man in his forties, May noted.
The 2019 novel coronavirus has spread rapidly from Wuhan, China across the globe, killing at least 132 people, infecting 6,000, and forcing 50 million into quarantine. It has also spawned thousands of memes on TikTok, where paranoia and hoaxing have run rampant, much in the way fear of World War III did on the platform earlier this month amid conflict between Iran and the United States.
Coronavirus is breeding more substantial misinformation on TikTok as well: videos pushing conspiracy theories about the Chinese government and other entities have accrued thousands of likes, according to Deseret News, though none as many as the Canadian hoax.
Zach Oldham, the name used by the person behind the bogus Canadian coronavirus clip, later posted another video claiming he had to be under monitoring for the infection himself. He commented, “We are being moved to quarantine.”
May deemed Oldham’s assertion unlikely, given the falsity of the preceding video. Oldham did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
TikTok removed the video following an inquiry from The Daily Beast. “While we encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them, we remove deliberate attempts to deceive the public,” a TikTok spokesperson said.
Videos like this one may begin as pranks and grasps at viral fame—Oldham describes himself as the founder of a digital marketing agency on his Instagram profile, and on TikTok, his profile states he is “CEO of Coronavirus” and that followers should “follow my IG before I die.” But they also contribute to the challenge of disseminating accurate information to those in need of it, May argued.
“These types of videos are not helpful,” he said.
May said he had flagged the video to other public health officials in the area, and that he was considering alerting the platform to it, as well.
“I have to find someone with a TikTok account first,” he said.