Videos promoting baseless satanic panic conspiracy theories are quickly gaining unprecedented virality on TikTok in the wake of the massive Astroworld Festival tragedy that resulted in at least eight deaths and multiple injuries.
Though they have been thoroughly debunked, satanic panic conspiracy theories have wreaked havoc on the American public for decades — polarizing the public, capitalizing on fear, and often promoting racist and antisemitic tropes. “Satanic panic” refers to a conspiratorial panic over supposed ritual abuse and child sacrifice that began in the 1980s in the U.S., eventually contributing to the evolution of antisemitic conspiracy theories such as QAnon.
Last week's Astroworld Festival, a music festival in Houston headlined by rapper Travis Scott, turned deadly when fans abruptly surged toward the stage, crushing and trampling concertgoers. According to NPR, “seventeen people were taken to hospitals, including 11 who were in cardiac arrest.” Officials are still looking for the cause of the surge; questions have been raised about whether inadequate security and medical staffing may have played a role in the response to events.
Thousands of attendees captured the horrific scene on camera, and videos of the traumatic events are widely circulating on TikTok, receiving millions of views. While many of these videos accurately depict the seriousness of the tragedy, misleading conspiracy theories claiming something “satanic” or “demonic” is to blame are also going viral. These conspiracy theories argue that the event was some sort of satanic ritual.
These videos often cite the science fiction and religious imagery Scott used in the performance as well as promotional campaign for the festival as evidence for unfounded conspiracy theories linked to satanic panic. Scott’s iconography, such as the shape of the main stage, a mechanical bird set on fire, his choice of attire, and the signage behind the stage are also receiving viral attention on the app.
The comments sections of videos of the festival also demonstrate that many people on TikTok are buying into satanic panic conspiracy theories. One video with 20.3 million views shows an individual’s chaotic experience from within the crowd, and many of the most-liked comments refer to satanism. “You CANNOT tell me this doesn’t look like a ritual,” reads one comment, with 161,000 likes. “100%. this is giving demonic. He sacrificed those lives” reads another comment, with 199,400 likes.
TikTok has long had a problem controlling far-right “ConspiracyTok” videos that spread satanic panic misinformation, even though the content may conflict with the company’s misinformation guidelines. Not only have these videos evaded moderation by TikTok, but the company’s own “For You” page algorithm is picking them up and widely feeding them to users, enabling the rapid spread of misinformation.
The reach of the festival-focused conspiracy theory videos is unprecedented, especially given the low follower count to high views ratio on many of the accounts with content going viral. The views on the videos are comparable to — if not higher than — those of some of the most popular TikTok creators. For example, TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio, the most followed user on the app with over 128.3 million followers, has recent videos receiving similar numbers of views as some of the Astroworld conspiracy theory content.
Although some of these videos may appear speculative or even harmless in nature, they actually act as a gateway for a conspiratorial ideology and push users further into far-right extremist ecosystems. Claims of ritual sacrifice orchestrated by a ring of elite entertainers, for example, are very similar to the blood libel myth on which parts of QAnon are based. If users on TikTok accept the satanic panic theories about the Astroworld Festival, it would be a short walk to QAnon.
Conspiracy theories often emerge in the wake of horrible events as a means of offering a simple answer to complex problems. In this case, claiming the atrocious events at the Astroworld Festival are part of some greater plan by elites to perform a satanic ritual fundamentally dismisses the reality of this tragedy — and potentially directs TikTok users down a path toward much grimmer conspiracy theories.