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On April 7th, 2021, retired MMA fighter Joey Cassanova uploaded a video to his TikTok page with the message, “If you only knew what I’ve been through.” In the video, he pretends to be riddled by a spray of bullets as words flash on the screen, alluding to his past trauma: child abuse, foster care, being molested, depression, PTSD, the murder of his ex-wife, the loss of his father two months ago, three heart attacks. “Somehow I’m still here,” the message at the end of the video says as Cassanova stares defiantly at the viewer.
Cassanova had wanted to make the video for a long time, but he says family members had discouraged him from doing so, telling him it wasn’t appropriate to share such personal details on social media. He used an audio that had originally been used by a popular finger dancer, a slowed-down version of Vicetone and Tony Igy’s “Astronomia” that incorporated gunshot noises. “I thought it was perfect because it felt like I’ve been shot at my whole life,” he tells Rolling Stone.
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When he checked TikTok just a few hours later, he was shocked to find it had more than 1.2 million views (it now has almost 10 million), and that people had started using the audio to make videos with the same format. He was dismayed, though, to find that the videos — many of which were from white creators, some of whom were verified — appeared to be mocking his, with creators sharing their “trauma” like having small boobs or being allergic to peanuts. Brittany Furlan, a popular Viner-turned-TikToker with 1.5 million followers, used the trend to joke about being Italian-American and visiting the Jersey Shore; podcaster Ethan Klein did it and joked about how he’s 35 and his bathtub jet doesn’t work. (Furlan later pulled her video and apologized to Cassanova in the comments.)
There are now more than 185,000 videos under the audio, most of which are totally divorced from the original context of Cassanova’s video, and very few of which credit him. And while it’s unclear how many of the creators who participated knew of Cassanova’s original video, that doesn’t make it any less painful for him to see the trend. “They saw it, they stole it, and they ignored the pain behind the story,” he says.
Cassanova eventually came forward on his TikTok to call out those using the trend ironically, prompting creators like Furlan to apologize and delete their own videos; many of his followers have swarmed the comments of other videos using the audio to tag Cassanova and demand they give him credit. But the story of the trend he inadvertently started has reignited an ongoing discussion about virality on TikTok and properly crediting black creators, says Tia C.M. Tyree, professor and interim associate dean of the Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University.
“Black people have always been trendsetters. Therefore our content has been consistently taken,” she says. “With social media and the pervasive nature of it, the magnitude of it is not only incredible, but easily seen.”
Failing to credit black creators for their work has long been a problem on TikTok, most notably with the case of Jalaiah Harmon, the 14-year-old dancer who created the Renegade dance on the platform in 2019. Though the Renegade became hugely popular on TikTok thanks in large part to white influencers like Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae, Harmon’s role in creating the dance was largely unknown until the New York Times profiled her in early 2020, prompting fierce debate over how to properly credit young black creators. Most recently, that debate made a resurgence in the public discourse when Rae appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to perform a series of dances, none of which were attributed to their original creators.
“TikTok is supposed to be a safe space for all creators to be able to share their story and share their voice,” says Cassanova. “I used this platform to share my voice and my story to give other black creators the inspiration to do the same thing. But every time that happens, some white creator will come and steal it and not give the person credit.”
Black creators have also accused TikTok of aggressively censoring their content and failing to promote them on the For You page. Cassanova himself alleges that his account was suspended for violating content guidelines following a livestream he did discussing the death of his father (a representative for TikTok did not immediately reply to requests for comment). In response to such criticism, TikTok issued an apology to black creators last year, and implemented an incubator program for black creatives to support emerging talent. But Tyree says Cassanova’s story proves this is not enough.
“At some point, TikTok needs to be mindful of the consistent theft and build some type of awareness campaign or change their platform that allows this to be stop,” she says. “The lip service has been paid. At some point there has to be actions behind it.”
Arguably, the larger, more insidious issue, and one that is certainly not exclusive to TikTok, is how the nature of internet virality can take black suffering and trauma, strip it of its context, and turn it into something to be skewered by a largely white audience. Mutale Nkondo, leader of AI for the People and member of TikTok content advisory board, compares Cassanova’s story to that of video footage of a black woman undergoing a mental health crisis, which ultimately became a viral GIF. This trend of “digital blackface,” a term coined by Teen Vogue writer Lauren Michele Jackson, is “really, really well-documented,” she says. “You’re making fun of someone at their most vulnerable point and forcing them to relive that trauma through this virality.”
For Cassanova, this has been the effect of his video going viral, even if it wasn’t the intent of many of the creators who jumped on the trend. Watching people use the trend to recount their own minor inconveniences or first-world problems “put me in a mental stress. It was like reliving the trauma,” he says. He made the original video to encourage his male followers to “have feelings and speak their mind when they’re going through something”; but the response to his original video made him feel like he would have been better off staying silent.
Ultimately, he does not regret putting the video up, as he says he’s also received countless DMs from people thanking him from sharing his story. Nor does he harbor ill will toward creators who jumped on the trend without knowing about the source material, many of whom, like Furlan, have deleted their own version and apologized to him directly. But he says it hurts to watch a moment of vulnerability on his part go viral for all the wrong reasons. “If people use the trend to tell their story, that’s fine,” he says. “Use it to tell your story. But to make it a trend to be like a comedy, I felt like that was very heartless.”
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