Content warning: This article includes brief discussion of sexual violence. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which can be reached at 800-656-4673 or online via hotline.rainn.org.
A debunked viral TikTok hoax claiming that April 24 is “National Rape Day” and women need to protect themselves has spawned a related trend, #GrabHisArm, that could actually place women in danger. The trend encourages women in distress to grab the arm of random men for protection. The original hoax and subsequent trends are spreading quickly, but TikTok has yet to implement any sort of meaningful action to slow it. By not proactively correcting the original hoax on its platform, TikTok has enabled the further spread of dangerous misinformation and fearmongering.
The dominant narrative on TikTok is that a group of men made videos threatening that April 24 was “National Rape Day.” But, as TikTok confirmed to Media Matters, the original videos supposedly making those threats never existed. Despite the lack of evidence supporting the April 24 “threat,” the misinformation went viral on TikTok and spilled over to other major social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Although there is no real threat surrounding April 24, reactions from some TikTok users -- even if well-intentioned -- have created a campaign that could actually cause harm.
The #GrabHisArm trend began in response to the April 24 “threat” and encourages women to essentially grab the arm of random men if they feel distressed in public. The #GrabHisArm hashtag has over 2.1 million views on TikTok, outpacing a similar #GrabHerArm trend by 1 million views.
One of the most popular videos promoting the trend was posted on April 18 and has so far accumulated 1.8 million views, 288,900 likes, 38,900 shares, and countless “duets” (a feature in which a user records a video alongside another original video).
TIKTOK USER: All right ladies and gentlemen, I need you all to listen to this and listen closely. Everybody knows about the April 24 bullshit. Ladies, if you are in distress, if you’re scared, if something is bothering you, if someone is following you -- it doesn’t matter what it is. I want you to go to a random guy, grab them by the arm, and you hold on. Dudes, listen to me, if a random woman walks up to you and grabs you by the arm and is holding your arm, you know something’s wrong, you protect her with everything in you. I want everyone to share this. Get this out to all the ladies that are on here. That way we can keep every one of them safe.
The overlaid text read: “LISTEN CLOSELY AND DUET THIS IMMEDIATELY! #GrabHisArm TAG EVERYONE IN THIS!”
Although some promoting #GrabHisArm may be well-intentioned, the sensationalization and even valorization of this trend is concerning -- particularly when a number of users are using the burgeoning campaign as an opportunity to justify or express a willingness to use violence.
Encouraging women to grab a random man’s arm in public on April 24 could place them in real, physical danger.
“My response to April 24th. Ladies, feel free to grab my arm if you need help, God will sort him out, he can pray for his mercy, this Ex Army Sniper is all out,” wrote one user in overlaid text.
A different user swung a baseball bat in his #GrabHisArm video, signaling his willingness to fight. Another had a gun on his hip while recording. One account even called April 24 the “national purge day of these sickos,” tagging the video #grabhisarm.
Unchecked April 24 misinformation sparked the #GrabHisArm campaign, which now has some users anticipating violence in reaction to a threat that never existed. But TikTok has not taken the necessary steps to counter the viral hoax behind this new misinformation campaign.
The platform’s response to viral COVID-19 misinformation has been to boost factually accurate videos. In this case, TikTok has done little to nothing to combat the widespread April 24 misinformation, creating intense fear in some users and driving others to call for violence.
As but one example of the type of factual content TikTok could uplift, Abbie Richards, a TikTok creator fighting online disinformation, posted a debunk video thoroughly and clearly explaining the April 24 misinformation. In the same fashion that TikTok boosts other factual information videos combating misinformation on the platform, the platform should bump videos like this in searches related to April 24. It should also provide resources or further information for survivors of sexual violence (similar to the platform’s COVID information resources) while this highly distrubing content circulates.
This campaign surrounding April 24 is a case study of how viral misinformation and imprecise or sensational media reporting of a non-threat can spark responses that could create more materially dangerous situations than the original hoax itself. As these spinoff narratives continue to circulate on the platform, TikTok must act quickly to prevent any further harm.