111 years after the Titanic sank, TikTok is helping spread misinformation

Historians worry conspiracy theories will affect how a generation of young people learn about the tragedy

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published April 15, 2023 1:59PM (EDT)

The 'Titanic', a passenger ship of the White Star Line, that sank in the night of April 14-15, 1912. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)
The 'Titanic', a passenger ship of the White Star Line, that sank in the night of April 14-15, 1912. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

It is a strange irony that the internet — the byproduct of millennia of scientific and technological progress — has evolved into a wellspring for the dissemination of pseudoscience and unfounded conspiracy theories. The latest example is the proliferation of Titanic conspiracy theorists, who believe that the fabled ship that sank 111 years ago today never actually sank at all. 

Conspiracy theories around the ship have existed for a while, but social media has supercharged their dissemination.

In one viral video that is exemplary of this bizarre and increasingly popular conspiracy theory, TikTok creator @_mia.w22 claims that the company that built the Titanic, the White Star Line, instead purposely sank another one of its ships, the Olympic, to collect insurance money.

"They look identical," Mia says in the TikTok. "The Olympic was on the water for a while. She was reaching for retirement and they knew that. They were like, 'well, it was a lot of money to make the Titanic, and it's gonna be even more money to repair the Olympic.' So what if we just sent the Olympic out instead, sink it, claim some insurance money and then just scrap the Titanic like it was the Olympic for some spare parts."

The video was astoundingly popular, garnering over 11 million views, and was reported on by media outlets like the Miami Herald and Insider.

Though the video has since been deleted, conspiracy theory videos continue to swirl around the Titanic like debris around a sinking ship. In fact, there is a whole subculture on the social media platform devoted to them.

Another TikTok user posted a conspiracy video that claims that banker J.P. Morgan sank the Olympic, and not the Titanic, to kill his competitors. That video has 13.8 million views. A separate conspiracy theory claims that J.P. Morgan sank the Titanic to push forward plans to create the Federal Reserve. (J.P. Morgan figures into a lot of these conspiracies, interestingly.) Some conspiracy theorists are even going as far as claiming that the Titanic sinking was a "hit job." The TikTok hashtag #TitanicConspiracyTheory has over 2.5 million views.

Experts who study the Titanic say that conspiracy theories around the ship have existed for a while, but that social media has supercharged their dissemination. 

"It's become more prevalent in the internet age," Titanic historian Parks Stephenson and executive director of USS Kidd Veterans Museum tells Salon. "It's always been out there, but now there are your trolls, doing it on purpose to elicit reactions from people — they can't participate in the story so this is their method of participation, throwing a wrench into the works and seeing what shakes out."

As Stephenson said, Titanic misinformation predates social media. Indeed, after the ship sank back in 1912, a rumor surfaced that it was because it was cursed by a mummy. As explained by History.com, a British editor named William Stead, who believed in early 20th century spiritualism and was a Titanic passenger, spread a rumor that a cursed mummy was causing inexplicable destruction around London. During the voyage, he shared this tale with other passengers. Though he died during the tragedy, another passenger who survived told the story to the New York World. The Washington Post picked up the story and ran the headline: "Ghost of the Titanic: Vengeance of Hoodoo Mummy Followed Man Who Wrote Its History."

Another conspiracy theory suggested that the ship's number, 3909 04, read as "no pope" when viewed in a mirror — an omen that portended the ship's doom. But as explained in the Titanic history book "The Night Lives On," there was no such number attached to the Titanic.

"Because of the internet, instant communication, conspiracy theories are becoming more widespread," Stephenson said. "I look around, I see lots of Titanic experts . . .  but from my perspective, most are regurgitating things that are already out there."

Don Lynch, historian of the Titanic Historical Society, told Salon he is often contacted online by people asking him if various bits of misinformation are true. Lynch blames amateur videos on YouTube that call themselves "documentaries," but which don't live up to that label. 

"People think that anything that is called a 'documentary," whether it's on YouTube or something, that because it's in a new medium, that it must have new information," Lynch said. "Literally, people have told me 'I saw it in a documentary, you should do your research,' and they think if they watch a documentary, they've done the research."

"A lot of people don't understand what original sources are," he rued.

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One peculiar part of the puzzle is why people are still so fascinated with a 111-year-old ship. On TikTok, conspiracies aren't the only pieces of Titanic-related content. The hashtag #TitanicCosplay has 11.3 million views; in these kinds of cosplay videos, users dress up like characters from the 1997 movie "Titanic" and recreate their favorite scenes from the film.

Stephenson said historians are often asked why the public obsession with the Titanic lives on over a century later.

"It is the ultimate story: it's unsinkable, supposedly, and you've got it full of all these key people, like the president of the company that owns it, and the president of the company that built it, and as well as all these famous people . . . and then on its maiden voyage, it hits an iceberg and then sinks so slowly," Lynch said. "And then there's all this time for all this drama to be acted out, like the band playing — that just doesn't get duplicated."

Lynch said there are other shipwrecks that he finds fascinating, but that for some reason the Titanic has captivated people for over a century.

"It just happened at a time when the world was fairly sure of itself, and at that point it was the top headline," Stephenson said. "And the Titanic just has all the makings for a great drama, and subsequent disasters didn't have such a collection of all these dramatic elements coming together to make this fabulous story."

Both Stephenson and Lynch fear that misinformation online could affect how a new generation learns about the Titanic.

Stephenson added that many people seem to find their own lessons and parables in the disaster. 

After the blockbuster 1997 James Cameron movie came out, a man named Robin Gardiner wrote a book called "Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank?" which likely started the conspiracy theory that the White Star Line switched the Titanic with the Olympic and then purposely sunk it.

"He threw this out there, I think, to just to stir up the Titanic community," Stephenson said. "He's no longer with us, so you can't interview him today, but that's what started the whole insurance-fake-scam theory — and if you read through his book, if you research his allegations, you find they lead nowhere."

Both Stephenson and Lynch fear that misinformation online could affect how a new generation learns about the Titanic.

Lynch said he has seen people on Facebook post, "'my six year old is fascinated with the Titanic, he watches every video he can get.' And I'll immediately say, 'Well, you might want to introduce him to printed matter — and here's a good children's book.'"

Lynch added that AI-generated photos of the Titanic are a new and dangerous source of misinformation.

"They're putting out photographs that are so realistic, it's scary," Lynch said.

Stephenson said that aggressive conspiracy theorists have caused him to distance himself from Titanic research.

"I believe these conspiracy theories are detrimental to research because they tie you up," Stephenson said. "I'm passionate about it [Titanic research], but I'm not passionate about going over the same material over and over again to people who won't listen."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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