Cheslie Kryst’s final TikTok is about M&Ms. In the video, she’s clutching a package of pink-and-white candies with her miniature likeness printed on them. “When you shoot a TV segment at the M&Ms store and they surprise you with …. M&Ms with your face and name printed on them,” reads the caption on-screen. Kryst holds the candy and mouths the words of a popular TikTok audio, “OK, I like it, Picasso.” She grins at the camera, eyebrows arched high and smooth skin perfectly lit.
I likely would have never seen this video if Cheslie Kryst had not died by suicide after jumping from a building in Manhattan earlier this week. The attorney and 2019 Miss USA winner–turned–Extra correspondent also had an active TikTok account with hundreds of thousands of followers. I was not among them, but the very day after her death, TikTok showed me that M&M video on my For You page. I watched it multiple times, my eyes and brain instinctively scanning it, looking for anything that might make sense of the question we all ask when the senseless happens: Why, why, why? There is, of course, nothing to be found hidden among the box of chocolates or Kryst’s perfect curls. There is only the sadness of a world now short of a person who should still be here.
Many of the comments on Kryst’s final videos reflect this sentiment. Well-meaning people, most of whom are likely strangers to her, are leaving notes of peace and sympathy on her TikToks. But scattered alongside them is an alarming number of comments from people unwilling to believe Kryst’s death did not involve foul play. There are now strangers coming to Kryst’s videos looking for “clues,” amateur sleuths casting her as the star in TikTok’s latest true crime drama. “Are they SURE she wasn’t pushed.” “There needs to be a full investigation on what really happened because something isn’t adding up … she seemed truly happy and full of life.” “I believe something aint right here. She had a pile of clothes to wash. She wasn’t trying to die.” “Anyone could leave a note.”
When it comes to mourning, the internet presents a mixed blessing. It creates a space to grieve collectively where once there might not have been. While many of the people who have flocked to Kryst’s social media pages probably didn’t know her personally in life, it’s comforting and, frankly, very human to see people seeking out this digital space to be together. It’s especially so given what Kryst’s family has said about her struggle with depression. It seems not unlikely that a person with depression or even experiencing suicidal thoughts might also have sought out Kryst’s content. It’s nice to think that someone might find kind, supportive comments, gentle reminders that life is worth living.
But that same sense of belonging to a hyperpersonal community is how we get from people leaving a zillion “rest in peace” comments and dove emoji to posting cruel conspiracy theories. Accessibility gets confused with familiarity on TikTok; just because Kryst was making TikToks regularly, right up until her death, doesn’t mean that we actually knew her. Just the version of herself she presented to the world. It doesn’t matter that she talked candidly about the racism that led her to leave the legal field, her beauty routines, or gave an intimate tour of her New York City apartment; all of that was a presentation, images constructed knowingly for an audience. “Cheslie led both a private and public life,” Kryst’s mother, April Simpkins, said in a statement. “In her private life she was struggling with high-functioning depression which she hid from everyone—including me, her closest confidant—until very shortly before her death.” Kryst’s family has accepted how she died. This hasn’t stopped TikTok users from thinking they know something the family doesn’t.
It seems possible some of the people behind these comments really do believe they are “helping,” or at the very least working through their denial in real time. The problem is TikTok’s algorithm is not designed to quash those voices until they are relegated so far down the screen you’ll never actually see them. It’s designed to feed on drama and to pick up on current interests and push them to the front. And, disturbingly, that means wild comments and content alleging a mysterious murder are always going to rise to the top.
When Gabby Petito, a 21-year-old van influencer who was traveling the country with her boyfriend, disappeared in fall 2021, TikTokkers around the world deputized themselves as armchair detectives. Weeks later, her body was discovered. (After much further investigation, officials concluded her boyfriend, Brian Laundrie, killed Petito before, weeks later, taking his own life. He admitted to this in a notebook he left behind.) Much of this so-called investigation was done under the guise of “spreading awareness” of and bringing attention to the search. But what was really happening, as viewers propelled TikToks about Petito toward megavirality, was the algorithm tacitly encouraging creators to make more content about Petito. Haley Toumaian, a burgeoning true crime content creator at the time, told Slate’s ICYMI she gained nearly half a million followers when she started posting about the case.*
Those posts included updates from law enforcement, but also wild theories about where Petito might be, alive or dead. On ICYMI, Toumaian explained posting those theories by saying she always made clear disclaimers—a murky justification for a genre of media that Toumaian insisted is not “journalism.” “I’m not trying to do the job of the detectives or find out information,” she said. “But I want to be a source of information that could possibly help reach somebody that it may have not reached before.”
Harnessing tragedy for conspiracy clicks isn’t a novel internet concept. In the years since 9/11, content peddling theories under the guise of “just asking questions” has become a cottage industry—one that never yields truth and only inflicts pain on those already suffering. Another example is the story of Sarah Turney’s sister, Alissa, who vanished in 2001. Turney started a podcast in 2019, on which she shared her sister’s story and began posting aggressively on TikTok in an attempt to drum up attention for the years-old case. Their father, Michael Turney, was arrested and charged with murder in 2020; this was thanks, in part, to his daughter’s TikTok following.
But Sarah Turney was also victimized by that very same kind of following, according to a story this week from Deseret News. Another TikTok true crime creator made dozens of videos baselessly claiming that Turney had killed her own sister, then sending his audience of 250,000 to harass her. “It was horrendous and traumatic,” Turney told Deseret News. “It’s something I will never forget that I imagine he and his audience don’t even think twice about.”
Those same emotions, those unnecessarily painful memories that will last a lifetime, are what Cheslie Kryst’s family now face at the hands of TikTok. In an increasingly digital world, internet spaces are only going to become more important to how we process death—a reality only calcified by the coronavirus pandemic. Finding people to grieve with can be powerful and emotionally steadying. But in real life, you’d never burst in on a family in mourning and start ranting about far-fetched clues and suspects. Using TikTok like it’s a virtual wake after a tragedy—that’s what comes with being part of a community. Using it to make content about the tragedy, as if Cheslie Kryst’s life is fodder for spectacle—that’s just cruelty.
Correction, Feb. 4, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Haley Toumaian’s first name.