AI-generated clips of Madeleine McCann – the British three-year-old who disappeared in 2007 during a family holiday in Portugal – and James Bulger, the two-year-old British toddler murdered by two 10 year olds in 1993, are going viral on TikTok, as the platform continues to be a hotbed for misinformation.
A new cohort of Generation Z armchair detectives has formed a true crime community on TikTok, and the case of Madeleine McCann is piquing their interest.
#MadeleineMcCann currently has over 1.3 billion views on TikTok, illustrative of the popularity of content surrounding unsolved cases related to missing children.
A search for the keywords “Madeleine McCann” returns with videos showing updates of her case as the top results. One of the videos is an AI-generated clip of the child’s likeness as she was at the age she disappeared, and details the story of her abduction.
“Today, the case of my disappearance remains unresolved, and my family continues to search for answers and hope. I wish them to finally know the truth about this story one day,” said the AI-generated figure in the video.
The AI-generated TikTok clip has over 180,000 views and 2,000 likes.
TikTok James Bulger
In a case that shocked and sickened millions around the globe, James Bulger was tortured for hours in 1993 before being murdered by 10 year olds Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The pair had lured Bulger away from his mother in a shopping centre.
Thompson and Venables became the youngest convicted murderers in British history, and curiosity about their lives has never waned.
On TikTok three AI-generated clips depicting Thompson and Venables have been shared from the same account. In the clips the “AI Thompson and Venables” speak as 10 year olds in German, retelling the horrifying murder of Bulger from their point of view.
“Our hearts were beating wildly and we knew there was no turning back [after committing the murder],” one of the AI-generated children stated in the video.
James Bulger’s mother Denise Fergus told British tabloid The Mirror that the AI-generated clips were “disgusting”.
Bulger’s father, Ralph Stephen Bulger, said he had reported the videos to TikTok and asked them to be taken down. At the time of writing, the videos were still live on TikTok.
“[Certain TikTok videos] are engineered for virality, or have an emotional quality to try to get viewers to engage with it,” Professor Daniel Angus, Professor of Digital Communication at Queensland University of Technology, tells The Chainsaw.
“But some viewers could be taken up by the novelty of the production techniques behind the videos,” he adds.
Dr. Tanya Notley, Deputy Chair of the Australian Media Literacy Alliance (AMLA), said the creators of such videos “use hashtags to tap into people’s feeds and interests and they often use enticing hooks that arouse curiosity”.
TikTok and AI content
TikTok’s content guideline on AI states: “We do not allow synthetic media that contains the likeness of any real private figure. While we provide more latitude for public figures, we do not want them to be the subject of abuse, or for people to be misled about political or financial issues. We do not allow synthetic media of public figures if the content is used for endorsements or violates any other policy.”
However, TikTok defines “public figures” as those over the age of 18. This means the guideline does not include, for example, child celebrities, or in this case, AI-generated Madeleine McCann, Robert Thompson, and Jon Venables.
“TikTok has often been slow to act in removing problematic content when compared with other popular social media platforms,” Dr. Notley says.
“I think these videos show that we all need to develop media literacy so we can use our knowledge about media and apply critical thinking to make decisions about the content we watch and share online.”
In a statement to The Chainsaw, TikTok said: “We want TikTok to be a welcoming place for everyone, and there is no place on our platform for disturbing content of this nature. Our Community Guidelines are clear that we do not allow synthetic media that contains the likeness of a young person. We continue to remove content of this nature as we find it.”