My Relationship Was Derailed By A Stranger’s Viral TikTok

Picture this. It’s 8am on a Saturday. You’re already awake because today’s your last bridal fitting. Downstairs, your family gathers to discuss wedding breakfast options. You open your phone for your usual morning scroll through TikTok. The first video that welcomes you is of a young woman posing flatteringly, her face overlaid with text reading: "If you’re marrying a builder called Adam from London on the 27th of August please message me, I know what happened on the stag do." 
It’s you. You’re marrying Adam and his dirty laundry is now airing in a viral TikTok created by user Polly Jae Webster. You can see the 380,000 pairs of eyes which have already seen it before yours got the chance to — and the people they belong to all have ideas about what you should do next. 
"Cancel the wedding," writes one user. "She’s dumb if she stays," types another. 
There’s a new TikTok trend in town: catching cheaters. "Dump Him" is a familiar refrain on the internet and cheater-exposé content is nothing new but a new breed of TikTok video, typified by the one above, is taking things to the next level. It involves TikTok users publicising information they’ve overheard from strangers talking about their cheating acts in public places. Some, like the aforementioned video, are simple, text-oriented and invite the alleged "victim" to message the creator for more information. Others purposely film the alleged perpetrator’s face, encouraging their followers to get the video to go viral and inviting anyone who recognises the person in it to identify them.
Even celebrities have taken part. The American competitive Olympic diver Tyler Downs found himself sitting on a plane next to a man he suspected of cheating on his wife because he could read the man's texts over his shoulder. He posted a video exposing the allegedly unfaithful husband. In the seconds-long clip, the man in question’s face is filmed and Downs encourages followers to identify him with the follow-up comment: "Anyone know this man?"  
Other videos of the same ilk mock the situation and even the people involved. An upload from @datcutecouple, an influencer duo who create content about their relationship and how to do relationships well, filmed another couple in an airport having a meal. While the woman eats, the man is facing her but scrolling through Tinder on his phone. The creators have captioned it "Who’s gonna tell her?" with a laughing emoji. The video is labelled: "Let’s try and find who these ppl are." Brutal.
Self-appointed TikTok relationship vigilantes might be gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers but the fallout of their actions can be serious for all concerned. Some users have praised the trend as a sort of digital service for saving women. On Downs’ video, one user writes: "This trend is paying offfff." Another posts: "Really doing god’s work out here. In the name of all women, thank you." 
Others, however, find the trend more troubling. Is the intention really to expose cheaters and right a wrong? Or is the trauma of strangers being used to generate likes, views and shares? There are also questions to be asked about the legitimacy of these videos.
In the case of videos like Polly Jae Webster’s — who at this time has not responded to Refinery29’s request for comment — the vagueness of the story has drawn suspicion from her followers that her motivation is to go viral and earn cash, not to help someone out.

Similarly, TikTok creator Talia Rae has frequently uploaded videos catching cheaters on her account @gayitalianjew. In a now-deleted video (parts of which can still be seen on Reddit), she approaches a stranger in a bar and flirts with him after overhearing him talking about cheating on his partner, filming his face during the conversation. The video ends with him showing interest in Talia and her revealing that she’s filming him. His expression goes blank and he hurries away. In the UK, taking photos of or filming a person without their consent in a public place is a civil legal matter. If you do this, and publish the imagery on social media it may be seen as defamatory in some way by the person who was photographed or filmed, and may potentially leave yourself open to civil proceedings.
Like many others joining in on this trend, Talia Rae actively encouraged her followers to spread this video so that the man could be identified. Before deletion, the video had reached over 300,000 people.
At this time, Talia Rae has not responded to Refinery29’s request for comment.
Danielle*, a full-time mum who claims to be the partner of the man in Talia Rae’s video, appreciated the message even though it was delivered in a strange way. 
"This WAS my fiance, and me and his 5-month-old baby were at home thinking he was somewhere else. I’m thankful for knowing," she wrote in the comments on the video from a now-defunct account. 
Danielle’s fiancé isn’t the only alleged cheater Talia Rae has apparently caught. Much of her content revolves around this theme. In one video she and a friend specifically set out to catch a man in the act because they’re "bored". 
Speaking to Refinery29, 21-year-old Stacie* from Los Angeles said she was the partner of the person in that particular video and felt "humiliated" by the ordeal. "I’m relieved to know, but I wish there was a way for me to find out without TikTok. But then, I don’t know if that would have been possible. TikTok is better than nothing." 
Twenty-two-year-old Poppy* from Tennessee commented on the video, saying: "Thanks for raising awareness — he cheated on me all the time." After Refinery29 reached out for comment, she said she is the now-ex-girlfriend of the man in the video. She says he also cheated during her relationship with him. She says she felt awful seeing the video on her timeline and terrible for his current partner. "I was glad I was able to find out on my own, it’s less embarrassing, but I think I’d be glad to find out either way. It’s sad and hurts but it’s better to know than not know."
Can we be sure that these women are who they say they are? No. But their willingness to speak out, either way, speaks to just how pervasive this trend has become. Despite the embarrassment involved, Poppy told me that she thinks the TikTok trend for exposing cheaters is a good thing, adding: "No woman ever deserves this."  
Dr Maja Golf Papez is a lecturer in marketing at the University of Sussex Business School. Her research is particularly focused on the dark side of consumption-mediated relationships and technology: relationships that are neglected, unexpected, troublesome, irking and problematic. She has concerns. 
"Outing cheaters brings exposure to the TikTok Robin Hoods, traffic to the platforms and voyeuristic pleasure to the viewers," Maja told me. "People use TikTok to peek into other people’s lives and like to watch others as their secrets and dirty laundry are revealed. A target’s embarrassing, angry, sad or nonchalant responses to being exposed are music to the ears of what Clay Calvert (2004) called a 'voyeur nation'. These are people obsessed with consuming information about others’ apparently real and unguarded lives." 
"The voyeuristic appeal of exposing cheaters allows spectators who are hunting for the opportunity to stare and to be entertained to spectate without being seen," Maja added.
Maja also shares concerns that TikTok creators may be using this trend simply to gain more followers. Cheating content has always performed well online. If you have a story about cheating, you can easily attract attention, engagement and even profit on TikTok if you’re part of the Creator Portal. In a sub-community dubbed #messytiktok, users upload and watch content about "messy" relationships — everything from deadbeat dads to catching unfaithful partners in the act. The hashtag has 2.6 billion views. 
According to Seek Metrics, a TikTok with 300,000 plays and over 1,000 comments could bring in an estimated $6,000 USD (approx. $8,050 AUD). With low engagement, it could still fetch an average of $3,000 USD (approx. $4,025 AUD). Since there’s a huge amount of money to be made from entertaining cheating content — and the videos are often not deleted after the intended recipient has been found — is this trend really ethical or indeed about the victim at all?
Regardless of any good intentions that may be involved, Maja adds that this social media trend has serious consequences for the targets who are being publicly humiliated. Many of the comments on these videos are from people insisting that the woman in question immediately end the relationship, and sharing disappointment if they haven’t. 
"Our lives are mediated by the internet and public moral disapproval has serious consequences for the target’s professional and social life," Maja cautions. "The targets can feel dehumanised and have their reputation altered permanently regardless [of] whether they publicly express their regret and remorse or not." 
This is a really important point. What happens once the video becomes yesterday’s news? Thirty-one-year-old Rose* found out that her partner Tony* was cheating eight years into their relationship. She says they "weren’t just committed, but embedded" with a mortgage and an upcoming wedding. Rose found out Tony was cheating not by checking his phone or speaking to his friends — as many women do — but by scrolling through Instagram.

A woman Rose did not know had uploaded a photo of her and Tony, with what Rose describes as a "cryptic caption" about having multiple partners. It was then that Rose realised Tony was cheating. "I still think she uploaded it so I had a way of finding out without her having to tell me directly. I think she wanted to do the right thing," Rose tells me.
"Finding out on social media was brutal though. I wish she’d found the courage to just message me," she continues. "That post haunted me for the next year. Too many people saw what happened before I did," Rose explains. 
By contrast, 30-year-old Amy* from London discovered her partner Jason* was cheating through her own TikTok (now deleted). The couple were working abroad for a few months while Jason was on a work sabbatical and Amy uploaded a short video of the two of them relaxing. A few days after posting it, Amy was messaged by a woman who told her that her boyfriend was dating someone else. 
Though he’d lived with Amy for eight years and they had a house together, Jason had somehow maintained a serious relationship with another woman for 18 months. Amy discovered this via a private conversation but Hannah* (Jason’s other girlfriend) found out via the public TikTok. Though it had under 500 views, Amy says this was devastating for Hannah. 
"I wasn’t trying to send anyone a message with my video. I didn’t know there was a message to be shared," Amy explains. "But she was so heartbroken, devastated and especially embarrassed. Her finding out on social media was so upsetting. She felt like everyone saw her as a home-wrecker." 
"It was my decision to tell people what happened. Everyone in my life knows what happened because that was my choice. Hannah didn’t get the same option."

Amy firmly believes that other people knowing about your problems before you do removes your ability to choose your own path. It takes away agency during a crisis.
"It’s hard to go back to someone if everyone knows what’s happened between you," she reflects. "It removes your option to stay, especially when bystanders are commenting their thoughts on what you should do next." 
Ultimately, Maja says that TikTok shamers — such as those who comment on these videos and criticise women for staying in the relationship —  are underestimating the negative impact that their disapproval can have on those involved.
"It is likely that online shaming is a disproportionate punishment for the transgression," Maja notes. Indeed, cheating is common and popular psychologist Esther Perel might argue that it's not necessarily the worst thing that can happen in a relationship. Estimates vary but at the higher end, 75% of men and 68% of women admit to cheating in some way, at some point during a relationship (more up-to-date research from 2017 suggests that men and women are now engaging in infidelity at similar rates).
It’s difficult to say whether this trend is a good thing or not. It might be exposing infidelity and dishonesty but it is doing so in a very public way and this can have extreme implications for the mental health, career opportunities or even future relationships of everyone involved. 
As Jon Ronson noted in his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, we are using shame as a form of social control. "We know that people are complicated and have a mixture of flaws and talents and sins," he wrote. "So why do we pretend that we don’t?"
*Names have been changed to protect identities

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