Jordan Williams, 18, recently posted a video on TikTok encouraging fellow Gen Zers to get matching tattoos as a sign of rebellion.
She stumbled across the symbol, a letter Z with a line through the center, in the comment section of another user’s video. She thought the image seemed simple enough and universal enough to be a good fit, so she issued a call to action to her 2,000 followers.
“OK Gen Z listen up!” Williams captioned a video of herself staring into the camera wearing a black hoodie. “What if, now hear me out…We all got a matching tattoo. As not only a symbol of unity in our generation but also as a sign of rebellion.”
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The 18-second clip lit up with positive responses, as a few teens and young adults went out and got the symbolic image permanently inked on their bodies, Williams told USA TODAY. At least three people got the tattoo, she said. Others went the DIY route creating makeshift tattoos at home.
Williams, a restaurant server in a small Missouri town, then went to work, covering a double shift. While she was offline writing down orders for pizza and mozzarella sticks, the social media response to that video took a turn for the worst.
The symbol, one person said,looked similar a Nazi swastika. Williams’ original video was memed dozens, maybe hundreds of times over. She received death threats and even a threatening phone call from people she didn’t know.
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Jordan Williams is known as Smoothavacado on TikTok. (Photo: Dalvin Brown)
The German hate symbol the tattoo resembles is called a Wolfsangel and is used by neo-Nazis in Europe and the United States, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
TikTok’s reputation as a source for teens to post innocent dance videos is swiftly eroding away as the app takes on what could be a more permanent place in American culture, experts say. The app, still in the throes of a deal between Walmart and Oracle to stay in the U.S., is also the latest corner of the internet where people spread hate, racism and bigotry. Several examples exist. But sometimes, it’s just a misunderstanding.
“This is the sort of a medium that we live in these days, where images and messages can be misinterpreted, and they’re so supercharged with the polarization, that it almost becomes guilty until proven innocent,” said Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at the University of Carnegie Mellon.
In many ways, Williams represents TikTok’s average user. She’s young, digitally engaged, generates mounds of content and appears to have no issue exposing her life to the world. One of her previous videos was a rant about her job.
Engaging users like Williams, TikTok has surged in popularity in recent years after its parent company Bytedance took over the tween sensation Musical.ly in 2018 and branded it under a new name. The app is now used by a reported 100 million Americans – most of which are among the Generation Z population age 24 and younger.
This segment of society is growing up in an era of holding people accountable for the ideas they spread, which is sometimes grouped into cancel culture.
Williams, alarmed at the number of app notifications she was receiving at work, issued a swift video trying to explain herself. People attacked that video, too, saying it wasn’t enough. Meanwhile, her follower count shot up to 23,000.
Jordan Williams set her TikTok to private after one of her videos upset people on TikTok. (Photo: Jordan Williams)
Williams made a third video a few hours later, apologizing for the mix-up. She made suggestions for people to get the tattoo changed into other Z-related symbols that didn’t appear racially targeted or hurtful. The hate messages didn’t stop, so she made her profile private and deleted the Gen Z tattoo-related content.
USA TODAY reached out to TikTok for comment.
Only Williams knows her true motivations behind telling people to get the tattoo. She says the incident was an accident, and that she has always written the letter Z and number 7 with stylistic lines through them.
“I want everyone to know that I am really genuinely sorry,” Williams said. “It was an honest mistake. I should have done more research.”
Several people have since uploaded video PSAs instructing others not to get the tattoo. Some sympathize with Williams. Still, it’s not the first time a trend on TikTok has been in the crossfire for racial insensitivity or outright hatred.
There have been video challenges that perpetuate racial stereotypes and promoted prejudice against people with darker skin tones. There’s also the troubling George Floyd Challenge, which saw teens kneeling on a friend’s neck reenacting how Floyd died in police custody, a moment that sparked days of protests across the country.
There isn’t much that stops the teens and young adults from posting misguided race-related content or outright hateful messages online. There are algorithms that categorically take some content down, and reporting individual videos helps, but the most effective change starts with parents talking to their kids, experts say.
“The truth is we cannot protect our young people from this stuff, which means that parents have to do the most difficult thing of all: Talk to your teenager,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of global social action agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization.
“When you raise these issues, they’re gonna say, ‘Oh yeah. I see it all the time.’ Tell your kid, ‘When you see it the next time, bring me over to the screen.'”
Follow Dalvin Brown on Twitter: @Dalvin_Brown.
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