A TikTok “frog army” has racked up millions of likes – but the potential consequences of the bizarre stunt are no joke, experts say.
In February of this year, a young TikTok user who claims to be based in the UK started building out a “frog army” after noticing “some type of eggs in a shallow pond near his home”. In recent videos, he claimed to have gathered more than 1.4m eggs that have hatched into tadpoles in a backyard pool he built. “I wanted to create the largest frog army in history,” he said in one video. “Next year I will create a giant pond for 10 million frogs.”
Also this spring, another TikTok user claimed to have released 100 million ladybugs in Central Park in New York City. In later posts, he claimed he had been served a lawsuit in response and had fled the US.
Racking up hundreds of millions of views as commenters egged them on, both users have continued to escalate their stunts, promising more releases of larger numbers of animals. They’ve even hinted at meeting up.
While the Guardian could not independently confirm the veracity of both users’ accounts – neither responded to multiple requests for comments and there has been speculation the videos may be a hoax – the massive popularity of the videos has scientists concerned.
The “frog army” leader” now has more than 2 million followers and over 20m cumulative likes across his page. The “lady bug raid” conductor has more than 42m views on his videos.
“It makes me cringe,” said Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Relocating species like frogs and butterflies can have grave impacts, Curry said. “Instead of helping, [These TikTok users] are actually hurting the animals they’re releasing and all the animals in the environment that they’re releasing them into – it’s creating a vector for disease and invasive species,” she said.
Scientists say if true, the frog release is alarming given that human relocation of frogs is a top threat to the species. One fungus introduced by humans redistributing amphibians has caused a “mass extinction” event, wiping out more than 90 species of frogs.
“It’s the law of unintended consequences,” said Chris Nagano, who worked 27 years as an endangered species biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service. “I have no doubt this person may have thought he was doing a good thing, but he may actually be driving these populations to extinction.”
Experts are concerned that the way TikTok operates is exacerbating the problem.
TikTok differs from platforms like Instagram and Twitter in that its feed is made up largely of people a user does not follow, allowing content from across the web to be surfaced by the algorithms. Because the way its feed works remains relatively unknown, users are more likely to post increasingly “unexpected” content to boost their views, said Ioana Literat, an associate professor at the teachers college of Columbia University.
“Because it is such a black box, a lot of users are just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks,” she said. “More so than well-established platforms, the ethos of the TikTok really amplifies the unusual and creative.”
When videos do go viral, the platforms’ 1 billion monthly active user base guarantees an extremely wide reach. The app’s popularity has created an evolving business model in which creators are shifting from “persona-based fame” to “content-based” fame, said Literat.
“People no longer need to build a following over time, they just need to do one wacky or unexpected thing that goes viral and the followers will come later,” she said.
In both the frog and ladybug cases, the users were in conversation with, and encouraged by, their followers.
Frog army followers commented on the user’s videos asking how they can collect their own eggs. And the user behind the ladybug release claimed to have explicitly launched his stunt in exchange for engagement saying, “if this video gets 30 likes I will buy 100 million lady bugs and do a lady bug invasion in NYC.”
“They are doing this to get likes or shares,” said Curry, the conservation biologist. “It’s a popularity stunt that can have extremely negative consequences.”
She noted such releases could also be illegal. Laws vary by country and state, Curry said, but she encouraged people to call their state wildlife agency if they see such activity on TikTok.
TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.