Mexican Drug Cartels Are Using TikTok for Self-Promotion

Inside the rise of "Cartel TikTok"

General view of the TikTok building, in Culver City, California.
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wondered what someone with a bulletproof vest and an AR-15 would look like flossing — the dance, not the method of dental hygiene — apparently the answer to that question can be found on TikTok. Unfortunately, it’s not as a part of some absurdist sketch comedy or surreal video art installation. Instead, it’s part of a growing trend of drug cartels in Mexico using TikTok as, for all intents and purposes, a marketing tool.

In a new article for The New York Times, Oscar Lopez explores the phenomenon of “Cartel TikTok,” which experts described to him as “the latest propaganda campaign designed to mask the blood bath and use the promise of infinite wealth to attract expendable young recruits.”

This is not a brand new phenomenon, but it is one that many residents of the United States have become more aware of in recent months, due to a video of a boat chase going viral. As Lopez explains, TikTok users who liked this video soon found themselves seeing more and more cartel-related content. It’s a particularly unsettling application of the algorithm in action, and it’s one that has accelerated a number of times since then.

The debate over the ethics of watching these videos feels like the next iteration of the debates over listening to narcocorridos a few years ago. For some viewers, Cartel TikTok can provide a fascinating window into organized crime; for others, it can have a normalizing effect on the behavior of violent underworld organizations. For all the ways in which TikTok has been in the spotlight this year, this might be both the most surreal and the most worrying.

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