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I'm losing my friends to Taylor Swift conspiracies :(
TikTok is radicalizing my peers.
Embedded is your essential guide to what’s good on the internet, by Kate Lindsay and Nick Catucci.
This is the only Taylor Swift conspiracy I care about. —Kate
The YouTube and TikTok algorithms have long been criticized for how they are thought to radicalize users, steering them toward violence, hate speech, and conspiracy theories. “Family members spoke of their loved ones as if they were cult members or drug addicts, sucked in by social media companies and self-serving politicians who warped their views of reality,” a Washington Post article about QAnon reads.
What we don’t talk about enough is how these same mechanisms can lure our loved ones into less sinister but equally delusional ideologies. My friends, for example, who are suddenly being really weird about Taylor Swift.
I should start by saying I like Taylor Swift. I’ve supported her from the beginning, and through moments when I arguably should not have. When the ten minute “All Too Well” dropped last year, I cried! But recently my friend Hannah, who I previously believed to be a normal, well-adjusted member of society with an average degree of interest in Taylor Swift’s music, texted me to ask if I was on “Taylor Swift secret unreleased album Karma TikTok.”
“I need someone to talk about it with,” she wrote with the fervor and desperation of someone trying to score cocaine. “I’m in so deep and I am being radicalized.”
I responded by asking if she’d be interested in writing about this for Embedded, and she responded: “Answer the question what do you know about Karma.”
I was surprised by Hannah’s sudden personality change, but I understood why it was happening: Taylor Swift’s next (real) album, Midnights, is dropping on October 21. Therefore, the Taylor Swift side of TikTok—already a somewhat manic place in the best of times—has gone into overdrive. This has resulted not only in Hannah confidently but erroneously declaring every few days that, based on her TikTok sources, a new single is coming that night, but also my own TikTok For You page being invaded by Swiftie drama.
Taylor Swift revealed the Midnights track names one by one. I was really mad when she announced “Karma,” because it at least partly validated whatever the hell is going on with Hannah. Another is called “Lavender Haze,” which opened a whole new can of worms. I’m not entirely qualified to speak on it, but the color lavender is associated with queerness. Given that a loud portion of Swift’s fanbase has long believed Swift to be secretly queer, you can only imagine the discourse that ensued when that name dropped. This was complicated by the fact that, in describing the inspiration behind the song, Swift mentioned how she and her longterm partner Joe Alwyn have had to dodge “weird rumors.”
Now SwiftTok is infighting over queerbaiting, the ethics of speculating on Swift’s sexuality, and more. I was relieved to find out that Hannah had not been pulled into that side of things. But then I woke up to a text from my friend Maureen (who you may remember) that had been sent at 4 a.m.
“Oh no I think I’m accidentally starting to think Taylor and Dianna Agron dated.”
This was horrible news. Taylor Swift dating Karlie Kloss? Sure. Everyone’s heard that one. But Glee actress Dianna Agron is a deeper cut that suggests a much more serious investment in the conspiracy. Maureen was beyond saving. (I’m also writing this from her wedding weekend. Congrats Maureen! You need help.)
“It’s just hard because I’m seeing all these videos and I have no voice of reason anymore,” Hannah told me when I pressed her on all this. “I understand Q :(“
I'm having a bit of fun here, obviously. My friends getting sucked into Taylor Swift conspiracies is not dangerous or remotely comparable to the online radicalization and organizing that led to January 6. Still, I was surprised to see just how much the language that my friends had been using resembled the rhetoric of more serious online brainwashing. But if it's a choice between QAnon or a musician who once maybe said “her” in a live performance of a love song, I guess I’ll choose the latter.