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This Week in Corona Scams: TikTok Cult-ure Club

TikTok Cult

While long-time readers might understand why I missed all the “TikTok Cult” hype during the peak of its viral trend, I totally get why others may be wondering which rock I’ve been hiding under for so long. But now that I’m finally getting around to the mysterious “TikTok Cult” that may or may not eventually become the next viral true crime documentary of the internet age, 

WARNING: We are tackling some very troubling subject matters today, including terrorism, accounts of physical and sexual violence, and talk of violence against animals. Some of the video content featured below include some potentially offensive adult language. Reader discretion is advised.
What the hell is this “TikTok Cult” that we’re talking about?

Apparently while we were focusing on such mundane issues like COVID-19 and the launch of the new vaccines to stop its spread, the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump, and the passage of current President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, thousands (maybe millions?) of TikTokers were hyper-focused on the critical matter of the mysterious “commune” that emerged on their “For You” page. Where was this “commune”? Why were they inviting everyone to travel to their “commune” and attend their maskless events during a still active pandemic? Who else was staying at this “commune”, and was it ever a good idea for these TikTok tourists to travel to this “commune”?

It turns out that “The Garden” existed long before ByteDance even launched its TikTok social media platform, and that “The Garden” derived from the much larger Rainbow Family movement that had already attracted notoriety for a heavy rap sheet of violent crimes at their “Rainbow Family Gatherings”. And yes, in case you were wondering, the Rainbow Family movement launched in 1972 as an outgrowth of 1960s antiwar activism, hippie counterculture, and a then growing network of “off-the-grid” communes.

As we’ve become accustomed to saying around these parts, “The TikTok Cult” did not “come out of nowhere”. Rather, like other burgeoning Conspirituality groups, “The Garden” utilized a toxic mix of New Age philosophy, a seemingly attractive “gift economy” alternative to “late stage capitalism”, COVID-era dangerous pseudoscience, bigoted conspiracy theories, and blockbuster disaster flick worthy eschatology to offer curious TikTokers an allegedly welcoming refuge from “Babylon” (read – the outside world we live in) and the impending Armageddon. (Never mind that “The Garden” is located just outside a “sundown town” that has historically been violently hostile toward communities of color.)

As much as some of us may feel the temptation to mock the TikTokers who ventured to “The Garden” in hopes of discovering inner peace at a cooperative commune in rural Tennessee, only to instead uncover a world of violence, misogyny, racism, COVID-19 denial, and even support for QAnon, we need to zoom out and take a closer look at the outside world we live in to understand why it was so damned easy for certain “Garden” residents to hop on TikTok and recruit new members.

Surprise (but not really), “The TikTok Cult” did anything but “come out of nowhere”. As usual, the warning signs were piling up on our social media feeds.

We really can’t say this enough: This did not “come out of nowhere”. As frustrating as it might feel for government officials like White House Senior COVID-19 Advisor Andy Slavitt, NIAID Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky to see real science get ratioed in favor of “fake news” on social media, the fact of the matter is that it’s harder than ever for Americans to find real facts within easy reach. As “prestige news” outlets increasingly hide their content behind pricey paywalls, as local news increasingly gets decimated by the national media trend of corporate consolidation, and as “Big Tech” conglomerates increasingly turn to the algorithms on their social media platforms to boost their profit margins, this dynamic only intensifies the Infodemic that we now live in.

In the absence of readily available truth and facts, viral lies disguised as “dank memes!” reign supreme. As we’ve already been documenting on these pages for over a year, “Big Tech” companies often had to be named and shamed into taking action against false propaganda. And even though Facebook, Google, Twitter, and ByteDance now post warning labels on some problematic content and occasionally remove the worst of the worst content once the offenders break too many rules, it’s still incredibly easy to pop on all their social media platforms and find anti-vaccine propaganda, anti-mask propaganda, additional lies about COVID-19, and a seemingly endless stream of lies about the 2020 presidential election and the January 6, 2021, Attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In case anyone still wonders why formerly “fringe” groups like “The Garden”/“TikTok Cult” garner so much attention and quickly attract new fans, all we have to do is check our own social media feeds to see for ourselves how severe America’s Infodemic truly is. 

So when did “The Garden” suddenly morph into “The TikTok Cult”, and is that label even accurate?

Now, let’s jump back to “The Garden” near Lafayette, Tennessee. In January, a commune enthusiast by the pseudonym of Tree began to post about his and his romantic partner Julia’s experiences at a commune in Costa Rica, and at “The Garden” in Tennessee. Even though Tree and Julia themselves contracted COVID-19 while traveling, they not only continued to travel to different communes, but Tree often posted videos of himself interacting with other people at “The Garden” maskless. In addition Tree regularly posted the street address for “The Garden”, turned that street address into a hashtag on TikTok, and invited anyone and everyone to visit and stay at “The Garden”.

That got a whole lot of TikTokers talking about what was going on, who Tree might really be, and why content from this mysterious “Garden” was suddenly spreading all over TikTok. It turns out that Tree and Julia were already vlogging about his “unconventional lifestyle” before they landed at “The Garden”, and that they were actually fairly recent arrivals to “The Garden”.

If you haven’t done so yet, check out The Not So Secret Garden podcast, where a pair of TikTokers go beyond Tree’s viral videos to uncover a much more complicated and harrowing history of “The Garden”, one that includes multiple accounts of domestic and sexual violence, a pattern of racist and misogynist behavior being tolerated and even encouraged by higher-ranking residents, a consistent failure to help residents who were struggling with addiction and substance abuse, and an ugly power struggle with one deed holder at the center of the allegedly “leaderless/leaderful egalitarian commune”. This pattern of abuse persisted long before Tree even arrived at “The Garden”, yet this pattern of abuse has not drawn as much attention as the wild rumors surrounding Tree, another “Garden” resident by the name of Rel, all the chatter about them eating a cat, and a video of Rel claiming she skinned a dog.

Since these two TikTokers behind The Not So Secret Garden had only started to investigate the history of “The Garden” when Tree’s TikTok page was hitting its viral peak, TikTok not only exploded over Tree’s depiction of a seemingly idyllic “Garden” full of loving cooperation, but also over allegations of a more sinister reality behind the idyllic imagery. This is when and where the rumors began to spread about “The TikTok Cult”, and when speculation hit its peak over Tree allegedly being some 2021 version of a Charles Manson, L. Ron Hubbard, and Keith Raniere style “cult leader”. Though we now have evidence to prove that “The Garden” was never really as idyllic as Tree made it out to be, we also have evidence suggesting that Tree was probably not behind the most horrific abuse that occurred at “The Garden”.

It’s dangerously easy for misinformation and disinformation to go viral across the internet.

How many videos have we caught of people claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines are full of “deadly toxins”? Just in the last two weeks, I’ve noticed Alex Jones misinterpret scientific studies on the vaccines (when he’s not wishcasting his usual dark fever dreams of worldwide genocide), a posh and trendy Miami private school try to ban vaccinated staff from their campus, a bizarre freakout over “vaccine shedding” and “self-spreading” that has zero scientific evidence to back such accusations, the recurring Facebook sharing of an already debunked false rumor about the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and a reported death of a toddler (that occurred before Pfizer even began clinical trials involving children), another recurring Facebook rumor mill surrounding an unverified claim of an infant death, and a continually steady stream of “anti-establishment natural immunity breakthrough beats ‘Big Pharma’ greed” messaging that only adds to Americans’ confusion over what’s going on with the COVID-19 vaccines.

While America is still on track to reach 60% full vaccination of our population by mid-summer, we are seeing more evidence suggesting that the path to 60% full vaccination (and ultimately, to the 80%+ herd immunity threshold that will likely be necessary to prevent future severe outbreaks) will be more arduous than the Biden administration’s initial national vaccination strategy. The good news here is that some recent polls show room for growth among Americans who’ve primarily been vaccine hesitant because it was too cumbersome for them to navigate various websites and/or phone hotlines to book appointments, then drive to some location they’ve never previously visited to get their shots. 

The bad news is that we remain at serious risk of maintaining a high share of unvaccinated and most-at-risk Americans due to cynical politicians’ desperate attempts to boost their poll numbers and craven “Big Tech” companies’ drive to keep us all hooked on their social media platforms to boost their bottom lines. While we have some on-the-ground evidence suggesting that locally driven and campaign-style “Get Out the Vaccine” outreach can persuade some vaccine hesitant Americans to “get the jab”, we will likely still have to confront the social media Infodemic if we truly want to hit that higher herd immunity threshold sooner. 

Just because they call themselves “Love Has Won” doesn’t mean you’ll find any true love there.

Since the “TikTok Cult” interest peaked in March, the fallout has been quite fast and furious. Rel’s original account was banned from TikTok following her escalation of posting disturbing content (such as “jokes” about “drinking Kool-Aid”), yet she’s since returned under a new account and with an incredibly gaslighting (false) claim that neither she nor anyone else ever lived at “The Garden”. Meanwhile Tree and Julia eventually left “The Garden”, and Tree continues to post cryptic TikTok videos praising the commune lifestyle. “The Garden” itself finally closed its property to the general public in April, yet many more Conspirituality groups continue to flood social media with their “enlightening” content. One of these other groups recently made their own headline news over a member’s near-death experience and a leader’s mysterious death.

For years, some “very online” cult watchers have caught some eye-popping livestream videos from a group called “Love Has Won”. Though the “Love Has Won” label and the rainbow colored logo seemingly evoke the #LoveWins message embraced by LGBTQ+ civil rights activists, “Love Has Won” actually preaches a very homophobic version of the “twin flames” gospel and commands loyalists to follow the word of “Mother God” and “Father God”. “Mother God” was actually Amy Carlson, a one-time “spiritual seeker” who eventually made repeated claims on her Facebook and YouTube videos that she lived past lives as Cleopatra, Jesus Christ, Joan of Arc, Marilyn Monroe, and other notable celebrities, that she could heal any and all illnesses, and that she and her “twin flame” were on a mission to lead their faithful to some “fifth dimension” promised land once our planet gets consumed by a fiery Apocalypse. “Father God” was whomever Carlson designated at the time, with a man by the name of Jason Castillo serving as Carlson’s sixth and final “Father God”. 

The Rising Above LHW support group have posted an extensive portfolio of video evidence displaying alarming levels of abuse within “Love Has Won” ranks, including food rationing, the drugging of members, and the use of physical isolation at “Desolation Row” as punishment. Former members have also shared stories indicating that leaders used coercive control to keep their members trapped inside “Love Has Won” (and hoard members’ money for themselves). 

Even more alarm bells sounded off in May 2020, when “Love Has Won” left member Alex Whitten abandoned in a remote stretch of Colorado desert. Whitten had left his home and family in Ohio to join Carlson, Castillo, and their most fervent devotees at their ranch in Crestone, Colorado. Alex Whitten’s near-death experience led to a burst of notoriety that seemed to culminate in Carlson’s appearance on Dr. Phil last September, but “Love Has Won” continued to livestream on Facebook and YouTube, and they even began to expand their presence on Instagram and TikTok, before Saguache County, Colorado, law enforcement found Carlson dead late last month and charged seven “Love Has Won” members (including Castillo) with child abuse and tampering with deceased human remains.

Let’s wrap this up the best way we can. Let’s confront the awful truth behind the viral growth of “The TikTok Cult” and other dangerous sects.

During the final months before Amy Carlson’s death, “Love Has Won” increasingly looked to the QAnon world for new members. Considering how Carlson’s gospel of enlightenment and salvation from an evil “cabal” that’s out to destroy the planet aligns so neatly with QAnon’s philosophy/theology of “God Wins”/“Trust the Plan”/“Beat the Cabal”, and considering how Carlson later claimed former President Donald Trump as her father, we can see why Carlson and her inner circle saw potential in QAnon. 

As we noted earlier, “The Garden” influencers Tree and Rel engaged in various degrees of COVID-19 denial, and they offered curious TikTokers a magical metaphysical playground where they could gather maskless and party like it was 2019. At first glance, both “The Garden” and “Love Has Won” appeared to be “fringe weirdos” who could never pose any kind of threat to anyone who had any “common sense”.

But of course, in a country where a disturbingly large segment of people continue to believe Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, continue to deny the lethal reality of COVID-19, and continue to be inundated with a torrent of lies about the vaccines that can help us end this pandemic, why are any of us surprised that cults like “The Garden” and “Love Has Won” have lured in followers through social media? Alex Whitten binged on “Love Has Won” livestreams before he left to join them in Colorado. Earlier this spring, a cottage industry emerged of TikTokers flocking to Tennessee to experience “The Garden”. And even to this very day, QAnon acolytes continue to spread viral lies about COVID-19, the vaccines, Donald Trump, and the 2020 election.

As much as some of us just want to “make all of this go away”, we can’t just wishcast these lies away. We need to confront these “Big Lies” with real truth. Unless and until we as a society (and particularly those of us who work in journalism and media) put more effort into revealing the truth and making the truth more accessible to more of our fellow Americans, we will only continue to be haunted by “Big Lies” on our “For You” page and IRL.

If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please wear your masks and maintain social distancing from people outside your household.

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