The Washington Post published an article on Tuesday, April 19, that gave a detailed history of the “social media phenomenon” known as Libs of TikTok. The account, described by journalist Taylor Lorenz, reshares videos (often originally posted on the social media app TikTok) and provides framing context designed to incite rage from the account’s right-wing base. The account has been featured numerous times on Fox News and was heralded by conservative podcast host Joe Rogan as “one of the greatest f—ing accounts of all time”.
The rise of Libs of TikTok is indicative of a concerning trend amongst conservative social media pages that rely on creating a culture of conspiracism to control a specific political agenda. These efforts go beyond that of standard conspiracy theory – engaging in repetitive spread of misinformation to create widespread suspicion. A parallel analysis of the rise of other major conspiracist platforms such as Alex Jones’s Infowars as well as an analysis of how rhetoric used by Libs of TikTok reinforces authoritarianism indicates continued tolerance for the widespread proliferation of misinformation in the digital age.
Frontline’s documentary on Alex Jones, The United States of Conspiracy, gives a timeline for how Alex Jones gained such a significant influence on American right-wing politics. Specifically, Jones’s involvement in the 9/11 Truther movement – a conspiracy that the U.S. government was either complicit or actively involved in the 9/11 attack so that martial law could be enacted – was a turning point for his popularity. While Jones lost many syndicated radio slots for his 9/11 Truther conspiracy, he found a large following on his Infowars website. The creator of Libs of TikTok, Chaya Raichik, has seen a similar trajectory. After sharing conspiracies using several Twitter handles for more than eight months, it was the praise of Joe Rogan and a new focus on anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric that brought the account to the prominent status it now holds, with almost 900K followers and frequent mentions from major right-wing publications. Though she has been temporarily banned from Twitter before, Raichik has used her bans to incite further outrage, claiming in an interview with Tucker Carlson that “it definitely felt like a very organized attack by the left to get me suspended”.
Joanne M. Miller, Kyle L. Saunders, and Christina E. Farhart argue in their 2016 piece for the American Journal of Political Science that the proliferation of conspiracy theories can be linked to the concept of motivated reasoning. Motivated reasoning assumes that individuals wish to process information that may challenge their beliefs in a way that allows them to maintain their beliefs. Thus, “endorsing [conspiracy theories] that attribute nefarious intent to political opponents can serve an ideological worldview-confirming function” (p. 826). Also consider the research of Shanto Iyengar and Masha Krupenkin, who argued in 2018 that the increasingly sharp demographic divides in the Democratic and Republican parties have managed to help turn partisanship into a social identity in and of itself. Moreover, Iyengar and Krupenkin found that this partisan identity is due more to antipathy for the opposition than it is due to favor for those in the same party. In essence, the political divide in the U.S. has become a social identity that is rooted in hating one’s political opponents.
Further, Raichik relies on weaponized communication, which Jennifer Mercieca refers to as “an aggressive means to gain compliance and avoid accountability” (Mercieca, 2019, p. 266). This rhetoric is the same used by authoritarian leaders who Steven Levitzky and Daniel Ziblatt describe in How Democracies Die. There, Levitzky and Ziblatt claim that authoritarian leaders overturn democracy in 4 ways: ignoring democratic rules, claiming political opponents to be illegitimate, not opposing violence (and either passively or actively encouraging it), and having a willingness to limit civil liberties for opposition groups and media outlets.
In just one day after she published her article exposing Raichik as the creator of Libs of TikTok, Lorenz had her information leaked publicly and has been continuously harassed along with her friends and family. Between this harassment and claims that Lorenz and the Washington Post violated journalistic ethics with their article, Raichik has already used two of Levitski and Ziblatt’s four markers of authoritarian leadership. By making claims such as that “a professor who wants to destigmatize pedophilia … is who the left is defending”, Raichik is also working to make her political and social opponents appear illegitimate by attempting to link them to greater moral issues such as child sexual abuse.
Raichik’s work continues to exacerbate preexisting signs of democratic erosion within the U.S. but also feeds into the worsening of these conditions. Specifically, her focus on framing LGBTQ+ individuals as groomers or pedophiles works to demonize the queer community. While this is concerning on its own because it promotes discrimination and hatred, it also further emphasizes the solidification of party affiliation as a social identity. Additionally, by fulfilling three of Levitski and Ziblatt’s four markers for how authoritarian leaders take control, Libs of TikTok as a media platform sets the stage for authoritarian leaders to see greater success in future elections.
Bouza, K. (2022). Taylor Lorenz wrote about Libs of TikTok — and conservatives are having a meltdown over it. Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/libs-of-tiktok-expose-taylor-lorenz-1339595/.
Kirk, M. (Director). (2022). United States of conspiracy [Film; online video]. PBS.
Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die. Crown.
Lorenz, T. (2022). Meet the woman behind Libs of Tiktok, secretly fueling the right’s outrage machine. The Washington Post. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/04/19/libs-of-tiktok-right-wing-media/?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=wp_main&crl8_id=b3e1f8a8-f1e0-4ef6-85fc-aa448b307f46.
Mercieca, J. R. (2019). Dangerous demagogues and weaponized communication. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 49(3), 264–279. https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640.
Miller, J., Farnhart, C., & Saunders, K. (2016). Conspiracy Endorsement as Motivated
Reasoning: The Moderating Roles of Political Knowledge and Trust. American Journal of Political Science, 60(4), 824-844. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12234.