Last May, the K-pop superstar group BTS entered into a partnership with McDonald’s to release a limited-edition promo meal that consisted of a medium Coke, medium fries, sweet chili and cajun dipping sauces, and a 10-piece order of chicken McNuggets. The meal almost immediately sold out, and enterprising individuals on social media decided to take advantage of the group’s enormous popularity by selling certain items from the meal online. One item in particular, a chicken nugget shaped like a “crewmate” from the multiplayer online game Among Us, was auctioned off on eBay for nearly $100,000, a story that was quickly aggregated by multiple news sources, largely by citing it as an example of the absurdity of the meme economy.
One person who clearly did not see that story, however, was a TikToker known for posting QAnon and QAnon-adjacent conspiracy theories. Last month, she posted a video accusing various eBay sellers peddling the BTS chicken nuggets of nefarious intent. “I think there’s a little bit of human trafficking going on here,” the poster says before showing screengrabs of listings for various chicken nuggets. “This needs to go viral and something needs to happen here, because something is a little bit off,” she concludes. “Literally, a ‘rare’ ‘nugget,’ $14,000? This is fishy.”
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The idea that a chicken nugget eBay listing would serve as a front for child trafficking was clearly ridiculous on its face. Yet many of the commenters appeared to believe it held credence. “A lot of people seem to believe that the concern is valid. They seem to believe because the pricing is so high that, it must be a child that being bought, despite the evidence that there have been cases of people buying odd looking food for insane prices,” says writer and activist Maya Morena, who also posted a tweet about the video (indeed, as recently as last week, a 13-year-old girl received $15,000 in reward money from Doritos after posting a TikTok about finding a rare “puffy” Dorito in her bag.)
The chicken nugget trafficking video was later duetted by sex trafficking hoax debunker Jessica Dean, aka @bloodbathbey0nd, which racked up more than 169,000 views and 26,800 likes. Dean says she and a few other TikTokers reported the video for spreading misinformation, to no avail, saying such videos rarely get removed by the platform if they surpass a certain view count threshold: “if a video passes 10,000 likes, I’ll try to get it taken down but I’ve given up hope,” she says. (TikTok did remove the video after Rolling Stone reached out, saying it violated their community guidelines.)
Many of the eBay listings of the chicken nuggets were also removed, including the one in the original TikTok. One eBay poster selling an Among Us chicken nugget (the current top bid is $1,000), @topnotchlabels, tells Rolling Stone he has received a few messages regarding the sex trafficking claim, including someone who informed them they would be contacting eBay “with their suspicions and concerns.” ” Such an interesting hoax for sure,” @topnotchlabels tells Rolling Stone. “I would suggest to people, don’t believe everything you hear. Especially from TikTok.”
Another TikTok creator known for spreading far-right conspiracy theories, with an even larger 25,000 follower count, posted another video promoting the theory. “When people become aware of child sex trafficking, it is no longer hidden in plain sight,” she declares at the end of the video. Though that clip was taken down from TikTok, there is another on her page making similar claims about other eBay postings, such as a $20,000 potato chip shaped like a pizza slice and a Cheeto shaped like a urinating dog that is selling for $18,000 on the website. “There are more slaves today than in any time in history,” she confidently claims. “Are you angry yet?”
More troublingly, since the chicken nugget TikTok was posted, the claim that a viral chicken nugget somehow serves as a front for sex trafficking has made the rounds on other platforms, particularly on YouTube, where it’s been posted on a number of far-right conspiracy-flavored “news” channels. “Why are people selling ‘Chicken Nuggets’ for THOUSANDS of Dollars. Looks like child trafficking to me,” one poster on eBay wrote. “SHAME ON YOU EBAY, FOR ALLOWING THIS.”
At first glance, the rumors surrounding the eBay chicken nugget listing bear a striking resemblance to the Wayfair furniture conspiracy theory, which also took root on TikTok last summer (albeit at a much larger scale). Essentially, the conspiracy theory purported without any evidence that the home goods and furniture website Wayfair was a front for child sex trafficking, due to some users spotting what they viewed as exorbitant prices on industrial furniture on the website. Proponents of the theory believed such furniture was so highly priced because they covertly transported children.
The Wayfair conspiracy theory “did an unbelievable amount of damage,” due in large part to how quickly it spread on other platforms, says Dean, who specifically tracks the spread of sex trafficking conspiracy theories on TikTok. “In the aftermath of the Wayfair conspiracy, there have been so many new conspiracies. People got so hyped about thinking they’ve tackled some break in the code and now people will look for these types of pricing inconsistencies everywhere.”
Following the spread of the Wayfair conspiracy theory, numerous other hoaxes surrounding child sex trafficking have popped up on TikTok, including a debunked Polish documentary about a secret pedophile ring run by Muslims and a claim that Target has become a sex trafficking hub. Dean also cites a recurring conspiracy theory on TikTok regarding Amazon and children’s party hats being sold in bulk for thousands of dollars as an example of how e-commerce sites become the target of such theories, as they tend to result from “someone finding an overpriced item and they don’t do the research as to why it would be that price.”
As Rolling Stone previously reported, part of the reason why such outlandish sex trafficking hoaxes tend to take root on TikTok is because the format of the platform allows attention-grabbing yet inaccurate content to circulate at an astoundingly rapid rate. “Panicky videos are very engaging,” disinformation researcher Abbie Richards previously told Rolling Stone. “If you are just watching someone say, ‘Oh my God, this happened to me,’ that’ll go viral. Scary content goes quite viral.” TikTok’s For You page also delivers content that is algorithmically engineered to meet the user’s interests, providing little opportunity for content debunking such viral misinformation to surface.
Because TikTok tends to be more of an activism-oriented platform, anti-trafficking content also tends to generate lots of engagement. “A lot of teenagers genuinely see TikTok as a platform for social change. They try to rally up on TikTok and get these movements through,” says Dean, who works full-time at an actuarial consulting firm, but uses her previous experience working with trafficking survivors at domestic violence shelters to combat misinformation on her channel. “People know that sex trafficking is a problem, and whether children understand how much they’re fueling [misinformation] is up for debate, but they want to be heroes like any other child wants to be.”
Unfortunately, misinformation surrounding the reality of sex trafficking tends to do much more harm than good on social media. Because the vast majority of trafficking victims are marginalized young people, such as LGBTQ or homeless teens, who know and trust their traffickers, narratives about shadowy strangers using giant e-commerce platforms (and fast food meats) as a front for trafficking helps basically no one. Such claims make it “harder for trafficking survivors to see themselves in this narrative and feel that law enforcement and service providers will recognize their experience as an experience of abuse and exploitation,” Jean Bruggeman, executive director of the anti-child trafficking organization Freedom USA, previously told Rolling Stone.
By virtue of its design, TikTok in particular appears to be a bastion of such content. “The more viral a video is, the harder it is to take it down,” says Dean.
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