The segment was broadcast to an audience of millions, ran across local NBC affiliates nationwide and spread onto local NBC sites.
Dozens of stories followed. People, Forbes, the Daily Mail, the New York Post, and countless other outlets repeated what the Today Show had claimed, that at least four people’s deaths were directly tied to this alleged “TikTok challenge.” Right-wing internet commentators who have been critical of TikTok amplified the misinformation. “Four people have died from TikTok’s latest challenge,” tweeted conservative influencer Ian Miles Cheong in a tweet that received 4.7 million views. “ … And those are just the four police know of.”
But it was all untrue. There is no boat jumping challenge on TikTok. Before the media frenzy, no boat jumping videos had gone viral on TikTok, and no hashtag related to jumping off boats had ever been popular on TikTok, according to the company. Not a single trending audio on TikTok has ever been linked to jumping off boats.
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency issued a statement denouncing the story. “On Monday, July 3, a news story was shared regarding ‘first responders warning against a deadly boating TikTok trend after recent drownings’ in Alabama,” the organization tweeted on Monday. “Please be advised that the information released to the news outlet was incorrect. The ALEA Marine Patrol Division does not have any record(s) of boating or marine-related fatalities in Alabama that can be directly linked to TikTok or a trend on TikTok.”
When pressed for evidence of the challenge, a spokesperson for Today declined to comment. A representative from People pointed to three videos on TikTok, two of which had less than 100 views and have since been removed from the platform. The third was posted from an account with just 28 followers and received only 63 likes.
Before the media cycle decrying the alleged challenge, there were fewer than 5 searches per day for “boat jumping” on all of TikTok globally, according to data provided by the company. Since the media storm broke out, searches have skyrocketed by 35,900 percent.
Several articles about the alleged “boat jumping challenge” also falsely claimed that a 13-year-old boy had died as a result of a TikTok “Benadryl challenge.” In fact, such a challenge has never existed on TikTok, and there is no evidence that TikTok played a role in the child’s death.
“TikTok has been, for the past few years, a very lucrative boogeyman,” said Emily Dreyfuss, who runs a program aimed at educating news executives on disinformation and media manipulation at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy. “Our team and countless researchers and journalists across the country have spent time trying to educate producers, reporters, and editors that just because a source says something started on TikTok doesn’t make it true. I’m extremely disappointed to see that the Today Show has still not learned that lesson.”
Since TikTok broke into the mainstream consciousness in 2020, dozens of viral challenges have been falsely attributed to the app. In March, representatives in Congress bombarded TikTok’s CEO with questions about nonexistent TikTok challenges, repeating false information gleaned from news accounts. Last year, The Post revealed that Facebook had hired a conservative lobbying firm to plant news about fake TikTok challenges in local media across the country.
The origin of the “boat jumping challenge” can be traced to a single comment that a local Alabama resident made during a news broadcast.
In early July, Bobby Poitevint, a multimedia journalist at Birmingham’s ABC 33/40 news station, got a tip about recent boating accidents on a nearby lake. He spoke to Jim Dennis, who serves as captain of the Childersburg Rescue Squad, a volunteer organization of first responders for emergencies and natural disasters.
During the interview, Dennis claimed that it was TikTok that was causing children to jump off the backs of boats, which can be deadly.
“They were doing a TikTok challenge,” he told Poitevint. “It’s where you get a boat going at a high speed, you jump off the side of the boat.” Off-air, Poitevint pressed him for more information, asking for videos, but Dennis declined, claiming that he didn’t want to “promote” the videos and erroneously citing the federal law that protects medical information known as HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
“It’s just like with TikTok issuing the Tide Pod challenge,” Dennis said during the interview, which was later uploaded to YouTube. In fact, TikTok never issued a Tide Pod challenge. The Tide Pod challenge was another fake viral hoax, attributed to YouTube at the time, that became a meme in late 2017, nearly a year before TikTok launched in the United States.
Poitevint didn’t research more deeply. The segment ran, including the line from Dennis attributing boating deaths to TikTok. “Everything we reported came directly from his interview,” Poitevint said. “We talked more along the lines of boater safety, and we let him attribute the TikTok thing because if that’s what he’s seeing, he’s the first responder that’s out there. I’m not a huge TikToker, so I don’t know much about it. The story was focused on boater safety before the Fourth of July.”
When the segment was published online, the story snowballed. Other outlets began picking it up, culminating in the Today Show segment.
In an interview with AL.com, the website of the Alabama Media Group, Dennis, who did not respond to a request for comment from The Post, walked back his previous comments about TikTok leading to the boating deaths. “To say that’s the reason they died, I can’t say that,’’ he said. “That would be a matter of opinion.” He added: “It got blown way out of proportion.”
ABC 33/40 published an on-air clarification and a new story on the web, making it clear that ALEA denied Dennis’s claims. People updated its story after The Post asked for comment, and Today removed the television segment and posted a story clarifying that the challenge did not exist on TikTok.
The fake viral trend cycle
News media preying on parents’ fears about teen trends is nothing new. Saturday Night Live famously parodied the phenomenon in a 2010 skit in which comedian Bill Hader pretended to be a local newsman reporting on “souping,” which, he jokes, is when kids “drink expired soup to get high.”
In recent years, these frightening teen trends increasingly have been attributed to technology. For many parents, it can feel like every app on a child’s phone could put them in danger or persuade them to kill themselves. Two-thirds of parents said parenting is harder today than it was 20 years ago, with technologies like social media and smartphones cited as the reason, a 2020 study by Pew Research found. Fifty-eight percent of parents believe that social media use has a net negative effect on their teens, according to a 2020 survey conducted by the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, and 89 percent of parents are worried about what their child is being exposed to on their phone, according to ParentWise, a nonprofit focused on child safety.
Until TikTok launched in the United States, these fake trends were primarily attributed to YouTube and Facebook. Throughout 2017 and 2018, news outlets falsely claimed that YouTube videos were encouraging children to snort condoms, set themselves on fire, and eat toxic Tide pods. In 2019, national media outlets, most notably the Today Show, claimed that Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube were spreading the “Momo challenge,” in which an image of a terrifying sculpture would appear on a child’s cellphone screen and pressure them to kill themselves.
“Momo allegedly uses messaging platforms like Facebook’s WhatsApp to compel young people to take part in dangerous activities, from stabbing people and taking pills to suicide,” NBC falsely reported. Police departments issued warnings about the challenge compounding the media cycle.
The whole thing was a hoax. There was no evidence the challenge ever existed on YouTube, Facebook, or WhatsApp, and zero deaths were reported. The image cited as “Momo” is actually a sculpture titled “Mother Bird” created by the artist Keisuke Aisawa for the Japanese special-effects company Link Factory.
Media reports recently have seized on TikTok as the latest threat to child safety. To combat the problem, the company recently announced that it has hired veteran PR executive Zenia Mucha to serve in the newly formed role of chief brand and communications officer and revamp the company’s severely damaged image.
Dreyfuss said there are much bigger issues at stake than TikTok’s PR problem, however.
“Journalists are falling down on the job,” she said, “which leads to ridiculous policies and blanket bans and complete misunderstanding of what roles these platforms hold in our children’s lives. Journalists do a humongous disservice against our country’s ability to keep people safe and craft regulations that would actually protect children when they muddy the water so much with bad reporting. It’s frankly lazy.”