TikTok is a strange social media platform for the uninitiated. It inundates you with quick videos at a rapid pace—some funny, some educational, some inspiring. And some featuring borderline conspiracy theories.
Earlier this year, a TikTok video of a schoolteacher discussing historical figures and events went viral. In it, one student confuses Keller with Adolf Hitler before another chimes in that Keller was “fake,” “didn’t exist,” and that “everyone believes she was deaf and blind.” The teacher was visibly shocked, but the belief isn’t new: since at least 2019 TikTok users have been posting about the fact that Helen Keller wasn’t real and that her accomplishments—becoming the first deafblind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, publishing several books, being a prominent public speaker and social activist, flying a plane—couldn’t have possibly happened.
It’s the kind of ahistorical nonsense you’d expect from a QAnon message board, not teens on TikTok. But in many ways the demographic fits perfect. And even though it resembles a conspiracy theory, its particulars don’t quite fit the bill.
“The way we define conspiracy theories is that there’s this small group of malevolent people making a decision that benefits them,” says Mikey Biddlestone, a political psychology researcher at the University of Kent. “In a sense, you need to have some influence on the world before your hoax or your grift becomes a conspiracy theory.”
Biddlestone describes the Keller “conspiracy” as more of a cover-up. The fact that she’s held up as an example of what deafblind people are capable of provides enough reason for those spreading the misinformation to think Keller’s story could be some kind of romanticized narrative. There’s an implication of malicious forces or power structures that make it resemble more familiar political conspiracy theories, but it’s ambiguous and low stakes enough to fly under the radar. The posts, while numerous, toe the line of irony death—it’s just as likely Gen Zers trying to be funny by piling onto a dumb shitposting trend as it is an insidious plot to erase Keller’s accomplishments and existence.
Biddlestone likens it to people sharing pro-Trump memes before the 2016 election and during his presidency—for researchers, it was difficult to tell who actually supported Donald Trump and who was sharing memes and false information just for the sake of being transgressive.
“That’s one of the difficulties with the internet—you never know when someone is being serious or not,” he says. “The truth is probably some people genuinely do believe this, but a lot of people are also in on a joke. That’s where the irony death happens.”
The Helen Keller hoax certainly possesses the toxicity of a traditional conspiracy theory even if it doesn’t fit the definition. Aside from being ahistorical, it’s incredibly ableist. Deafblind people and disability advocates have pushed back against it, even using Keller’s own words for those that doubted her accomplishments while she was still living.
The first time someone called me fake news, I laughed. Then another insisted a Deafblind person couldn’t go to Harvard. Nearly every disabled person has experienced the old, “You’re faking it” line. Even #HelenKeller. She brushed them off saying, “Oh, the supercilious doubters!” pic.twitter.com/t8V3aWSVPA
— Haben Girma👩🏿🦯 (@HabenGirma) January 13, 2021
As with most hoaxes, any kind of resistance is perceived as further proof that the conspiracy is true. That’s not unique to the Keller hoax. But what is different is the swapped the power dynamic, at least in terms of social stereotyping. In psychology, social stereotypes are looked at through the dimensions of temperature—warm or cold—and competence. For example, people who hold antisemitic conspiracy beliefs view Jews as very competent but also very cold. Helen Keller “truthers” invert that power dynamic, which makes the hoax all the more confounding.
“People tend to stereotype disabled people as being very warm but not competent, and that is the opposite of what people tend to see a conspiracy as,” Biddlestone explains. “So essentially the Helen Keller hoax flips that story on its head of the usual stereotypes society has of disabled people.”
It also tracks that Gen Z would buy into it, and not just because it spread on TikTok. Biddlestone says there’s no definitive link, but generally his and other research finds that age has a negative correlation with conspiracy theory belief—in other words the younger you are, the more likely you are to believe them. He posits that one could even read into teenagers posting about Keller as a way of dunking on Baby Boomers who grew up with her story.
Based on those all those factors, it’s hard to believe there’s a genuine belief in the Keller hoax across the board. But between the people who actually do believe it and those simply saying they do as a joke, there’s enough material to view it as some kind of pernicious extension of conspiracy-minded thinking, even if it’s subconscious and rooted in being extremely online. And with the disposability of social media and the ever-growing desire to be edgy, it’s not hard to imagine even more sinister conspiracies or beliefs popping up as TikTok trends and taking hold in a similar fashion.