When you hear the words “viral TikTok video,” you probably think about funny challenges and pop song lip syncs. But there’s another type of content going viral on TikTok: Conspiracy theories.
In fact, TikToks espousing all kinds of wildly false claims have found an incredibly large audience, and while there’s something fascinating about viral conspiracy theories, they can have devastating real world consequences — as one online party supply company recently learned the hard way.
Ionized, a small business that sells novelty items like glow sticks and party hats on Amazon, has endured weeks of endless harassment, a ruined Amazon sales channel, and even visits from law enforcement. All because of a viral TikTok video spreading a QAnon-inspired conspiracy theory alleging that the company is secretly running a child trafficking ring.
“It’s just a continuous saga of barrages of emails and messages and police encounters,” explained Ali Momin, a partner at Ionized LLC, in a phone conversation with Mashable.
Ionized is based in Houston, Texas, and manages around a dozen novelty item brands and online stores. One of their main items, for example, is the Lumistick glow stick. They sell it through their Evolution Planet Deals, which is their Amazon storefront, and their e-commerce shop, GlowUniverse.com.
The whole situation is eerily reminiscent of the misinformation that spread rampantly last summer which falsely accused online retailer Wayfair of running a sex-trafficking ring. TikTok played a big role in spreading that conspiracy as well, and at the time a TikTok spokesperson told Rolling Stone, “We do not allow misinformation, including conspiracy theories, that could cause harm to people on TikTok or the wider public.” They said they’d remove “any harmful material” related to the Wayfair conspiracy theory and pledged to “continue to further strengthen our protective measures in this area.”
Now a very similar conspiracy theory is making the rounds again albeit on a slightly smaller scale at the moment. The big difference here, however, is that Evolution Planet Deals and GlowUniverse.com are nowhere near as big as Wayfair is and the blowback has hit them much harder.
In recent weeks, Ionized has been bombarded with emails, live chats through their website, and countless accusations posted on their Amazon product listings alleging that the glow sticks and party hats are really children being sold for sex.
“They found all of my partners’ information, what other businesses they have, their addresses, the address to our warehouse,” Momin said to me. “One guy posted about the railroad tracks behind the warehouse and said ‘that’s how they’re bringing in these kids, through the railroad tracks.'”
The source for all this? A few conspiracy theorists and a TikTok influencer.
The beginning of a TikTok conspiracy
In early April, a conspiracy theory started spreading among small TikTok accounts about party products being sold on Amazon under the Lumistick brand name. According to these videos, the brand listed a party hat for thousands of dollars. Glow sticks and LED lights, they said, had similarly sky-high prices.
The conspiracy theorists posed this question to their audience: Who would buy a one party hat or glow stick or bubble gun for thousands of dollars?
No one, obviously. Which is why, according to the conspiracy theorists, this meant these listings, all posted by the same company, had to be a front for selling children.
So, why was a single party hat being sold for so much? Well, it wasn’t.
These TikTok video creators missed a crucial detail on these Amazon listings. These were prices for bulk orders — and the pricing would change for each listing based on the quantity a user selected.
For example, the near $16,000 price for a light-up was actually for an order of nearly 3,000 hats. That’s approximately $5.50 per hat. Nothing unusual about that.
It’s possible that this conspiracy theory would have fizzled out without making it too far. In fact, one conspiracy theorist said in a subsequent video that their original claim about the party hats had been removed from TikTok.
But then TikTok user @dontghostme openly entertaining the conspiracy theory about Lumistick and shared it with his nearly 1 million subscribers.
It’s unclear if @dontghostme actually believed the conspiracy theory or simply thought it would be something that could get a lot of views. In fact his video did go viral and now has more than 6.1 million views and over a million likes. Mashable attempted to contact @dontghostme multiple times but did not hear back.
The conspiracy spreads
Once the video went viral on TikTok, it began moving onto other platform as well.
People started to tweet about the Lumistick party hat conspiracy theory, and dozens of Facebook posts that were accompanied by screenshots of the Amazon listing took hold.
Take a look below. Each square is a preview for a public post on Facebook that comes up when you search “Lumistick Amazon.”
Then the flood of messages and accusatory reviews of the Amazon products began.
“Are you really selling hats or people?” reads a question posted by an Amazon user on the page for the Lumistick party fedora hats.
Some of the comments left as reviews on the listings get even more explicit. “Illegal!” reads one of the reviews. “Take this down now!!!! No hats are worth 15 thousand unless your trafficking!!!! ? SUSPECT!”
More than 1,100 people marked this review as “helpful.”
Look up lumistick party hat on Amazon
SAVE OUR CHILDREN!!
Disgusting human beings. May God have mercy on your souls
— Aaron Gerbig ?? (@AaronGerbig) April 13, 2021
“WTF – save the children” reads another.
“Save our children” is a common refrain you see in the comments for these items. It’s a slogan made popular by believers of , the right-wing conspiracy that claims former President Donald Trump is secretly waging a war against a global Satanic child-trafficking ring run by baby-eating Hollywood elites and liberal politicians.
All of the comments and reviews quoted above were left on just one of the company’s products. But dozens of the Amazon product listings from Ali Momin’s company now have a slew of one star reviews after conspiracy believers left negative comments.
Again, this is all because a few people saw what they believed to be overpriced items on Amazon, without realizing they were bulk orders or investigating further, and then decided it must be a front for child trafficking.
From TikTok to the real world
The @dontghostme video didn’t go viral based solely on the account’s followers. It was aided by TikTok’s recommendation algorithm, which shows users videos it thinks they would like that they might not have seen otherwise.
“I thought, it’s TikTok, let’s just kind of let this all blow over,” said Ali Momin, recounting his reaction when the messages first started coming in. “Then that one user got millions of views. It’s obvious he was depicting the product incorrectly and just putting conspiracies out there.”
In fact, Momin found out about the source of the comments his business was receiving after a few friends told him their TikTok For You page recommended the video to them.
“That’s a pretty, pretty good algorithm to be able to spread that type of news to a couple of friends,” he told me. “I mean, these were close friends of mine, three or four people who reached out to me and said ‘Hey, what’s going on here?'”
After three weeks, which Momin described as “very stressful,” it was clear the situation wasn’t going to blow over.
“We had seven police officers come [to our warehouse] in a span of three days, back to back to back,” Momin tells me. “I told the officers, ‘Look, you can come in any time and just walk around in the warehouse and do what you’ve got to do, but just don’t bother us anymore.’ It was getting to a point where it was ridiculous. And then we had the commissioner come and he apologized. They said they received calls.”
YouTuber Mutahar Anas was one of the few critics of the conspiracy theory in its early days. In an email, Anas tells me that a viewer sent him a tip about the conspiracy so he decided to investigate. He found @dontghostme’s video trending on his TikTok For You Page.
Anas decided to debunking the conspiracy theory on his popular YouTube channel, SomeOrdinaryGamers, which has more than 2.6 million subscribers.
Anas told me that he didn’t hear from any proponents of the conspiracy after publishing his video.
“I believe that has to do with my viewer base generally not being of the type that falls for this,” he told me. “I also don’t entertain messages from people who believe in insane QAnon-esque theories to begin with.”
The video, titled “TikTok Trended a Dangerous Conspiracy Theory,” amassed more than one million views.
It was a hit by any metric, unless you compare it to more than 6 million views @dontghostme’s conspiratorial TikTok video that Anas was debunking.
The aftermath of being the subject of a TikTok conspiracy theory
Even though the TikTok conspiracy spreaders have largely moved on, the conspiracy is still impacting Momin and his company. While the hysteria has died down from its heights, Momin tells me that they’re still receiving emails and pings via their website’s live chat from conspiracy theorists.
It’s been almost two months since the bulk of the Amazon reviews were left. Amazon affixes a “verified” label to reviews by users who have actually purchased the item, and, unsurprisingly, not a single reviewer alleging Momin’s company is involved in child trafficking actually purchased a Lumistick product to test their theory.
Momin tells me the negative Amazon reviews were a critical blow to his small business, saying most of their listings were “ruined.” It also affected the overall rating for his store’s entire Amazon presence, which also sells things not branded Lumistick.
He told me that his company reached out to Amazon in an attempt to see what could be done about the clearly bad faith reviewers. Amazon never responded to them.
In fact, just as this story was set to publish, Momin reached back out to Mashable, weeks after we last spoke, to tell me that Amazon had just completely suspended the Evolution Planet Deals account.
“This Amazon store is about 17 years old now,” he told me in an email. “We suspect it might be all that attention on those products that came from those TikToks.”
Momin shared a screenshot of the Amazon message, which says the company has “determined it necessary to close your account.” Amazon did not provide a reason why it closed the account.
“Our peak season is coming up for July 4th…this is devastating,” said Momin.
At the time this article was published, Amazon users can still find several Lumistick products for sale on the site, but they all appear to be fulfilled by an Amazon warehouse, not by Momin’s company. If you search Google, you can still find all the original Evolution Planet Deals Amazon listings for Lumistick products, and if you click through on them all of the negative reviews from the conspiracy theorists are still live on the listings.
As for @dontghostme, he still regularly uploads content to TikTok like he has since 2019. However, the party hat video remains his most popular by millions of views. A day after his original viral hit, he uploaded a followup to TikTok in which he attempted to recreate the magic of his first conspiracy video. “Im going to buy the $15,000 hat!” read the onscreen text.
In the video, he proceeds to tell his viewers that he’ll be able to buy the hats and get to the bottom of this if they go to the link in his profile and check out the listed ads. The page he’s promoting is filled with links to affiliate offers from a company that pays influencers to promote mobile apps.
It’s unclear if @dontghostme was sincere in his fundraising effort or if it was just an opportunity to monetize his sudden viral fame. Since the video claiming he was going to use the funds to buy the hat, which amassed more than 880,000 views, @dontghostme has yet to mention the conspiracy theory again in his videos.
“I just didn’t know people like this existed out there…people that believe in conspiracies like this,” Ali Momin told me as we ended our conversation about how this has affected him and his company for the past few months. “It opened my eyes, man.”
Mashable has reached out to Amazon and TikTok for comment and will update this piece if we hear back.