All She Wanted Was to Dance. Then TikTok Spun a Conspiracy Theory That She’s a Serial Killer

·10 min read
sabrina-prater-tiktok - Credit: Sabrina Prater/TikTok
sabrina-prater-tiktok - Credit: Sabrina Prater/TikTok

On Nov. 11, Sabrina Prater, a contractor from outside of Flint, Michigan, put up a video of herself in a basement dancing to a remix of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine.” In most respects, it was similar to lots of other content posted on the platform: a low-fi, poorly lit video of someone dancing semi-suggestively to a trending sound. But the video went massively viral, racking up an astonishing 22 million views. Other users started stitching it, mostly editing themselves into the video dancing bizarrely, poking fun at the dilapidated setting and Prater’s appearance. (On TikTok, Prater previously identified as a “male [who’s] been dressing up since I was little”; she recently changed her bio to read, “I’ve come out completely. I’m a woman, girl; go by her and she!”).

This is, in itself, not entirely usual; it’s not uncommon for people on TikTok to post a video in earnest and then unwittingly start a trend, with others interpreting the original in a completely different (and not always entirely generous) light. In some ways, such collaboration and interpolation is baked into the function of the app, which allows users to put their own spin on viral content and present it without its original context fairly quickly. That’s basically what happened the first time Prater’s dance video blew up on the platform: “The jokes weren’t great. They were obviously at the expense of an impoverished person,” says Dax, a TikTok creator who watched the evolution of Prater’s content going viral. “But they weren’t taking it out on Sabrina directly. It seemed like regular TikTok shenanigans.”

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What happened next, however, took a light-hearted — if not somewhat mean-spirited — trend to an entirely new and troublesome level.

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Last week, a TikTok video analyzing some of Prater’s content was posted on the subreddit r/oddlyterrifying, which has more than 1.5 million followers. The video, which was posted by a creator named Dalton Thayer (the account has since been deleted) and features creepy music in the background, focused on a clip from one of Prater’s videos, in which she appears to dance in front of a computer monitor showing a slideshow of people’s faces. Thayer then scrolls through the comments, all of which are speculating that the images on the screen show women being held captive in a basement (the actual facial features are unidentifiable, and it’s difficult to discern the gender of the subjects, let alone their location). “This dude honestly creeps me out,” Thayer writes in the caption.

Thayer’s video, and others following it, appeared to have set off a firestorm of rampant speculation, landing on a completely absurd and outrageous conclusion: that Prater is a serial killer. They came to this based on evidence no more substantive than a video of a person dancing in front of a computer monitor. Some speculated that she was wearing the clothes of her “victims”; others that a wet spot on the floor was blood, or that they spotted a crossbow and a taxidermied deer’s head in a cage in the background of some of the videos (for what it’s worth, a deer head does appear in some of Prater’s old photos on her Facebook page). Some attempted to connect Prater to unsolved missing persons cases in Flint, posting that they would report her to the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office (Chris Swanson, the sheriff of Genesee County, did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment). Reddit moderators even founded a private community attempting to unmask Prater’s identity, r/WhoIsSabrinaPrater (this is not a particularly difficult question to answer: Prater has profiles on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, where she often posts photos of her three kids).

All over TikTok, creators obsessively pored through every minute detail of Prater’s content, hoping to find one more clue pointing to her supposed dark deeds, picking apart her financial circumstances — the dilapidated house is due to the content being filmed at a house Prater, who works as a contractor, is currently in the process of restoring, according to a TikToker who claims to have made contact with her — and her appearance in the process. “This will be a series on true crime any minute lol,” reads one such comment. It was, as conspiracy theory expert and TikTok researcher Abbie Richards put it, “like watching true crime, internet sleuthing, conspiracy theories, and transphobia collide in a horrific car crash.”

The obsession with Prater grew to such heights, Dax says, that she started seeing comments on Sabrina’s videos from people claiming to be in the Flint area, saying that they planned to film her in the neighborhood or go into her house. “I said, ‘oh shit, she could really be in danger here,'” Dax says. Thanksgiving night, a frustrated Dax made a video calling out conspiracy theorists on the app. “I basically said, ‘look guys, we need to stop this because this is a person,'” Dax says. “And maybe we should step back and have compassion.” Many people in Dax’s comments agreed with her; others accused her of being an accomplice, or ignoring Prater’s “crimes” right under her nose.

The root of the obsession with Prater’s identity is not difficult to suss out. Over the past year, TikTok has been playing host to a flourishing true crime community, with creators building followings in the hundreds of thousands or even millions by churning out theories about various high-profile criminal cases. But while in the past, the majority of true crime obsessives have focused on older cases that have either been adjudicated or largely now forgotten about in the press, creators’ attentions have now turned to cases that are currently unfolding — and with TikTok expediting the viral content cycle to an unprecedented degree, true crime creators now have the ability to potentially impact crime investigations and those involved in real time.

Sometimes, the impulse to play armchair detective on TikTok can unfold to relatively innocuous effect, as was the case with CouchTok, in which millions of Americans watched a five-second video of a young woman surprising her boyfriend at college and immediately deduced he was cheating on her. But this pattern played out to much more sinister effect earlier this year, when van life vlogger and aspiring influencer Gabby Petito went missing (and was later found dead) while traveling with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie.

At first glance, the Petito case appeared to be a tragic yet rather predictable narrative: a man with a history of obsessive and controlling behavior’s girlfriend was killed and he had subsequently gone on the run (Laundrie’s body was later found; an autopsy determined he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound). But TikTok became deeply obsessed with the case, to the degree that it was one of many social media platforms criticized for focusing heavily on the disappearance of an attractive young white woman at the expense of other, equally tragic missing persons’ cases.

In the leadup to investigators finding Petito and then Laundrie’s bodies, true crime creators started concocting elaborate conspiracy theories about the case. First, they attempted to link Petito’s disappearance to those of other travelers in the area where she was last seen; after Laundrie disappeared, they started speculating about his whereabouts, with one viral video taken by Laundrie’s supposed next door “neighbor” allegedly showing his mother communicating with someone hidden in a bunker underground. These videos blew up, and one even had an impact on the investigation itself, with police contacting a creator who’d made a viral video about picking up Laundrie shortly before he disappeared.

This was, however, the exception, not the rule. Few of the videos on TikTok about the Petito case were fact-checked, and even fewer were later determined to have any bearing on the case itself. Yet they went massively on the platform, in part because TikTok’s algorithm promotes videos that make sensationalistic claims and garner high engagement, without paying much attention to the actual content therein. The end result is that anyone on the platform who wants to play amateur sleuth can — often building a huge audience in the process, and often without considering the impact of their actions on those involved in the actual investigation. “People decide that they can role-play as detectives without understanding the harm they might cause,” Richards says.

To make matters worse, the mechanisms of TikTok tend to amplify people who may be vulnerable to exploitation or mockery. Because of the discoverability of the For You page, Richards says, random content can go viral, and not always for the “right” reasons: “it’s not uncommon to see videos or people go viral because they are being mocked or scrutinized. The algorithm doesn’t care about the intent of the user who posted the video, rather it cared about the reaction it garnered from users.” In other words, a video that makes someone the target of bullying or harassment is just as likely to go viral as a video that people genuinely enjoy watching.

Because the algorithm prioritizes high-engagement content, creators have an incentive to make videos about subjects that are already trending. Add in the “true crime culture on TikTok that practices this sort of speculation as a form of entertainment,” says Richards, and you have a recipe for disaster.

This is essentially what happened in the case of Sabrina Prater, who did not respond to requests for comment. Instead of viewing her videos for what they were (i.e., the work of a perhaps somewhat less than technologically literate millennial experimenting with her gender and sexuality), people instantly sussed out something nefarious beneath the surface, engaging in deeply harmful and transphobic rhetoric in the process. Many of the comments on her videos, for instance, referenced Buffalo Bill, the cross-dressing serial killer in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs who kidnaps female victims in order to make a “woman suit.” In the decades since the release of Lambs, many members of the LGBTQ community decried the film, criticizing it for villainizing transgender women and depicting them as not “real women” at best, and aberrant psychopaths at worst. And as the response to Prater’s videos sadly shows, there are many on the internet who still hold views harmful to trans people, even 30 years after Lambs‘ release.

But the person who has been hurt the most by far by true crime TikTok and its impulse to sniff out bad intent where there is none is Prater herself. In an emotional video she posted after the allegations started circulating, Prater appeared to be crying: “I’m sick of being hurt by this. I’m just like anybody else. I just want to be loved and accepted, man,” she said in the video. “And I’m not. I’m getting treated worse than anybody coming out like me.” She is now soliciting CashApp donations to help pay her power bill.

Prater’s tearful plea to be left alone prompted some creators to post response videos with the hashtag #StandUpForSabrina, urging TikTok creators who had made videos about her to issue apologies. And while some have, it’s clear that when it comes to True Crime TikTok’s cycle of generating eyeball-grabbing #content based on private individuals’ real struggles, the damage has very much already been done.

“The true-crime community on TikTok does more harm than they do good,” says Dax. “Even if they are investigating something, they are not investigators. And even if there is a case, they’re hurting instead of helping.”

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