FictionalTok Is a Perplexing, Ethical Enigma

@much_joy/TikTok @butlerdarren/TikTok @veteran.chris/TikTok

A big part of our job as internet culture writers and editors is to suss out false stories on TikTok. Like the rest of the internet, it is full of fake news, influencers lying for clout, and comedy skits that people take 100% seriously. It can be especially difficult to tell what’s fake when someone is telling a personal story because sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

But FictionalTok is just strange. Scrolling through the #fictional hashtag on TikTok, many of the videos are from BookTok and highlight folks’ favorite literature. But among the book recommendations are videos made by actors who are pretending to be different people documenting their lives and the drama they endure. Most of these accounts assert they are fictional in their bios or by using the #fictional hashtag (although, not all of these videos are clearly marked). But their content is made as if they are the real person, and, out of context, it can be confusing and misleading.

While I don’t consider myself a particularly gullible person, I’ve been duped before. A few months ago, I stumbled upon a TikTok from an account called “Butler Darren” in which Darren (if that’s even his real name!) claimed to be the personal assistant to a billionaire. In the video, he stated that he was tasked with going on “pre-dates” with women to sort through potential partners on behalf of his billionaire boss. He claimed to find “the one” for his boss but implied that he might be taking a liking to the woman as well. 

After typing all of this out, I recognize how fake it sounds. But upon first look, I figured it was another storytime. On TikTok, it’s not unusual to land yourself in the middle of an ongoing personal saga that someone has shared. I distinctly remember coming across this video, thinking he had an interesting profession, and scrolling right along. Watching everything back, the plot holes are gaping. What billionaire lets his assistant run his mouth on TikTok?

However, when placed in the middle of your FYP, it can blend in with some of the other true (if slightly exaggerated) stories that people share every day. When isolated, the narratives on FictionalTok fall apart and veer uncanny. It’s kind of like spotting an AI face in the middle of a bunch of real people.

FictionalTok is certainly not the first case of this kind of scripted reality web project. Lonelygirl15 is the contemporary blueprint for this kind of content.

FictionalTok videos copy the structure of storytime videos. Storytimes have been a massive part of internet culture for years now. This type of video involves a person recounting an unbelievable, true event that happened to them. They’re often clickbaity and dubious, but they at least come from a real person.

On TikTok, #storytime videos have over 114 billion views. The hashtag landing page encourages folks to “share a story that’s going on in your life or a factual one that you want the world to know.” Sometimes, stories are packaged using an audio trend that encourages this type of sharing. As viewers, we like them because it’s fun to get a glimpse of other people’s lives and problems. They are almost always stylized casually, giving them a more relatable tone. 

FictionalTok videos attempt to mimic the direct-to-camera talking style of a storytime video, but the plot points are more comparable to a mobile game storyline. Some of the videos are more believable than others, especially out of context. But mostly, as YouTuber Jarvis Johnson said in a reaction video to this trend, it’s bad acting, especially when a fictional page is viewed in its entirety. There’s a lot of shoddy fake FaceTime calls and illogical job details. The dialogue also uses a lot of slang that comes off unnatural, which commenters often point out. It’s a strange simulacrum of real-life problems that are ethically questionable at times, especially when it comes to certain storylines.

Some characters have stories that are dramatic but inconsequential. For example, there’s a handful of wealthy characters—like the billionaire’s assistant Butler Darren, long-lost twin daughters of a billionaire Joy and Trixie, and Roy family rip-offs the Hundos—who have unrelatable problems that could be entertaining for regular folks to watch.

But there are also characters like Ollie, a trans man reconnecting with his estranged trans father, and Veteran Chris, an army vet navigating fatherhood after previously dealing with infertility issues. These are undoubtedly important issues that could benefit from being talked about more in media, but the medium and manner in which they are told can really blur the line between real trauma and melodrama.

To their credit, both accounts, contrary to the other billionaire-related ones, disclose that they are being run by actors, specifically in the LGBTQ+ and veteran communities, respectively. However, one look at the comments can show you that there are a good number of people who believe their stories are real. The fact that a lot of folks don’t realize their stories are fake and deeply relate to the narratives is a bit disconcerting. The TikToks can really trigger strong emotions from viewers who feel like they’ve come across someone who gets their experiences. It can be a jarring feeling to realize what you believed was a safe space is actually all an act.

Back in May, a 23-year-old actress was called out for pretending to be the teenage daughter of a murderer. It appeared to be a similar acting project to the above accounts, as she told her friend she was “was working on a really cool acting project, and she couldn’t say much about it because she had signed an NDA, but it involved TikTok.” The friend recognized her face after coming across her fictional account which was called antialice. Upon clicking the antialice account, the friend was disturbed to find the actress playing a 17-year-old character without disclosing it was fake. Additionally, the actress had just finished a storyline about confronting a bully that made other kids in her comments laud her as a “hero.” Her friend expressed concern in a TikTok, saying that she was “lying to minors for money.”

Therein lies the biggest issue with FictionalTok: a lack of transparency. While it appears that fictional TikTokers have gotten better at denoting their stories aren’t real, it doesn’t seem to be enough since the #fictional hashtag doesn’t quite communicate the nature of the accounts. Obviously, a big part of their roles is to make the characters as believable as possible. However, I’m not really sure of the extent to which this is possible without becoming duplicitous. Plus, many of these accounts appear to be related, with most of the ones linked above having the same sign-up link in their bios that as followers to enter their phone numbers for “more.” (More what? Unclear. When I put in my number, nothing happened.) If this is a whole production, I want to know that as a viewer. Are they making money off of my views? Where is my phone number going? Actual content aside, I think it’s important to know the real people behind a project like this.

I think there are infinite possibilities for TikTok as a medium for storytelling. FictionalTok, at best, shows that there are creative opportunities for scripted content on TikTok. But there needs to be more transparency about who runs these accounts and why. I don’t think that necessarily compromises the appeal if the stories are good. There’s value in knowing that something is fake off the bat. You can suspend your disbelief immediately and focus on the story, rather than spending too much time wondering if the person is telling you the truth.

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