Sabrina Prater’s TikToks are like millions of others on the platform – they simply show her dancing at home.
But a recent video – showing her dancing to Shania Twain’s song “Any Man of Mine” – has drawn many attention to TikTok, ultimately putting Prater, who is transgender, at the center of a conspiracy theory.
It started with some users stepping into the video, adding seemingly harmless captions that were meant to be funny, such as “when you are the last person to leave a party”.
But soon others went further in their ridicule, calling Prater “Buffalo Bill” and accusing her of having “victims” in her home, without any proof whatsoever. The plot has spread like wildfire, with hashtags on Prater racking up tens of millions of views on TikTok.
Experts say this type of conspiracy targeting transgender people is not unexpected, and the internet gossip surrounding Prater likely stems from a media story portraying transgender people as bad or dangerous.
âThis fits completely into the long history of media portrayals of trans people,â said Brennan Suen, senior strategist and LGBTQ program director at Media Matters for America, a liberal watch group that monitors conservative media. “When you ‘other’ them, disclose them and portray them as criminals, it takes root in the culture.”
In a review of 102 episodes and one-off scripted television stories, LGBTQ media advocacy group GLAAD found that transgender characters were portrayed as killers or villains in at least 21% of episodes and storylines.
“This is an interesting case study of how the myths that arose so long ago in our culture and our media have persisted for so long,” Suen said of Prater’s treatment.
Online rhetoric similar to Prater’s case may have offline ramifications, especially for members of the transgender community, some experts say.
âSabrina is more likely to be in danger as a trans woman or as a gender nonconforming person than she is,â said Lois, a TikTok user who asked NBC News about it. identify only by first name out of fear. for his safety.
Lois, 24, is one of the handful of TikTok users who have come to Prater’s defense. In one of her videos, she debunked every theory or piece of “evidence” about Prater.
âThe charges went from ‘He’s a person who’s clearly in a bad situation’ and it started to ‘He’s a serial killer,'” Lois said.
People who live near Prater have said they will search for her and post videos of her online, Lois said. Others doxxed Prater, sharing his address and pictures of his home.
This kind of real-world confrontation can have dangerous, sometimes fatal, consequences. In 2020, a record 44 transgender people were killed in the United States, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
2021 is set to be even more deadly for transgender and gender non-conforming people. As the year draws to a close, at least 49 transgender and gender nonconforming people have been killed, according to the HRC.
âLGBTQ people face higher rates of hate and harassment online than any other marginalized community group, and much of it is directed against transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people,â Mary said. Emily O’Hara, GLAAD Rapid Response Manager. O’Hara was previously a reporter for NBC News.
A 2019 study by anti-harassment organization Ditch the Label again underscored the degree to which transgender people face online harassment. Ditch the Label and its analytics partner, Brandwatch, found that of the 10 million transgender-related comments on social media platforms over a three-and-a-half-year period from 2016, 1.5 million (or 15 %) were transphobic.
O’Hara, who uses them / them pronouns, said prejudices against transgender people can lead to “increased rates of poverty and homelessness, which no one should laugh at.”
They added that the algorithms of many social media platforms lack the capacity to protect marginalized groups and that misinformation about transgender and non-binary people can spread quickly with what appears to be little recourse for the targeted person. .
Even some of those who made the videos defending Prater were targeted with anger. Lois said people commented on one of her videos telling her she was “an accomplice” and “let [Prater] get away with ‘imaginary murders.
Another facet of why the conspiracies around Prater took off is TikTok’s infatuation with real crime.
The recent “Couch Guy” saga – in which TikTok was obsessed with a video of a couple trying to determine whether or not the boyfriend was cheating on the girlfriend – is another example of TikTok citizen sleuths letting their imaginations run wild. with real consequences for those at the heart of the situation. But the conspiracy around Prater has the potential to do much more harm to the subject.
âI don’t think we can separate what is happening on TikTok from what is happening in a larger media culture, which is that kind of real crime fetishization,â said Brooke Erin Duffy, associate professor of communications at the ‘Cornell University.
Eventually, the videos made on Prater became overwhelming, and she posted a TikTok of herself addressing the conspiracy theories.
In a live stream, which is no longer available but was reposted by other users, Prater said she was “not a serial killer” and was working to fix her house. In another video that has since been deleted, Prater said TikTok reported its content as violating community guidelines.
“I haven’t done anything wrong. I’m sick of being hurt by it. I’m like everyone else. I want to be loved and accepted, man. And I’m not,” Prater said in crying. video. “I am treated worse than anyone who comes out like me.”
Prater did not respond to an NBC News request for comment.
As videos like the one of Weeping Prater gained attention and the misinformation peaked, those who had made the conspiracy theory videos began to apologize and delete the content they had made. .
One creator, who made six different videos about Prater’s conspiracy, deleted posts containing accusations against her and posted a TikTok apologizing to Prater for any harm they caused.
âIt’s almost like screaming into the void sometimes,â Lois said. “It’s not your real detective story. He’s a real person who’s probably struggling with something and probably needs your compassion and help.”