IN-DEPTH REVIEW: Viral report of fatal TikTok boat-jumping stunt crumbles under scrutiny

by Andrew Wright
TikTok boat-jumping challenge

With the arrival of the Fourth of July holiday, an Alabama local news story was circulating, alerting the public to a lethal TikTok challenge that required leaping off a high-speed boat.

Jim Dennis, the captain of the Childersburg Rescue Team, shared with a local ABC affiliate station in Birmingham, Alabama that four avoidable drownings occurred within the last six months, all seemingly due to a TikTok challenge. This news was picked up by both national and international media outlets, spreading concern over this supposed trend. However, Alabama’s primary public safety organization declared no record of such deaths, with TikTok similarly denying the presence of any boat-jumping challenge on their platform.

Let’s delve deeper into the specifics.

CLAIM: Recently, four individuals lost their lives in Alabama while partaking in a viral TikTok boat-jumping challenge.

THE FACTS: On Monday, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the body supervising the state’s public safety units, used Twitter to debunk these viral claims.

The Agency clarified that their Marine Patrol Division has “no records of boating or marine-related deaths that could be directly linked to TikTok or a trend on TikTok.”

In 2020, a fatality occurred due to a person leaping off a moving boat, and a similar incident occurred in 2021, but there’s no indication these were linked to TikTok.

In a follow-up email to The Big Big News, the Agency shared information about six water-related deaths investigated this year by their Marine Patrol. None of the incident reports mentioned TikTok or any such challenge.

The incidents included a 79-year-old man drowning after falling from his boat during a nocturnal fishing trip on a river. Additionally, a 65-year-old man drowned after disembarking a pontoon boat to assist a dog in a lake.

Other fatalities involved a 19-year-old crashing his jet ski into a tree and a man who presumably drowned after the vessel he was aboard struck a bridge and capsized.

Major outlets like People magazine and the New York Post, who initially reported the TikTok challenge deaths, have since updated their stories to include the state’s feedback.

However, misinformation continues to circulate on social media platforms in both English and Spanish. Some posts even include videos supposedly depicting the victims.

A Twitter post stating, “Police say at least 4 people have died doing the TikTok boat jumping challenge,” went viral. It included several video clips of people diving from moving boats.

Jim Dennis, the local first responder cited in the initial report, retracted his comments following the state’s response.

He told AL.com, an Alabama local news source, that his statements regarding boating safety were misconstrued, but he insisted that his team has attended to reports of individuals leaping off boats this year.

Dennis stated the matter was “blown way out of proportion.” However, he didn’t provide additional comments when requested this week.

The ABC affiliate in Birmingham refrained from commenting, but included Dennis’s complete, unedited interview in a story about the state’s response.

Ben Rathe, a TikTok spokesperson, underlined that “boat jumping” has never trended on the platform, reiterating a statement previously issued by the company’s Mexico City office.

TikTok confirmed it refrains from commenting on issues that are “not part (of the platform) / are not trending on the platform.”

Like other social media platforms, TikTok has witnessed a variety of viral “challenges” over the years, from those that are potentially harmful and destructive to outright criminal and deadly.

Elizabeth Losh, a professor of American Studies at William & Mary University, who has studied TikTok trends, verified that while posts featuring people jumping off boats are visible on the site, they don’t seem to have gone viral or be widespread.

TikTok’s community guidelines prohibit users from exhibiting or promoting “dangerous activities and challenges,” which includes harmful dares, games, tricks, or the inappropriate use of dangerous tools.

Reporting for this article came from Ramirez in Mexico City. Additional contributions were made by Karena Phan from Big Big News in Los Angeles.

This report forms part of AP’s mission to counter prevalent misinformation by collaborating with external companies and organizations to add accurate context to misleading content being shared online. Find out more about AP’s fact-checking efforts.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about TikTok boat-jumping challenge

What was the claim about a TikTok boat-jumping challenge in Alabama?

The claim suggested that a deadly TikTok challenge involving jumping from a speeding boat was responsible for multiple fatalities in Alabama.

Is there any truth to these claims?

No. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, responsible for public safety in the state, clarified that they have no records of deaths linked to a boat-jumping challenge on TikTok.

How did the rumor start?

The rumor started with a local news report from an ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Alabama. The report included a statement from Jim Dennis, captain of the Childersburg Rescue Team, claiming that four drownings were due to a TikTok challenge.

Has TikTok acknowledged the presence of any such challenge on their platform?

No, TikTok has denied the existence of a boat-jumping challenge trending on its platform.

What has been the response of media outlets that originally reported on the TikTok challenge deaths?

Many major media outlets, including People magazine and the New York Post, have updated their stories to reflect the response from state officials denying the existence of such a challenge or related deaths.

Are there any other known dangerous challenges on TikTok?

Yes, there have been a number of dangerous challenges on TikTok over the years. These range from potentially harmful and destructive activities to outright criminal and deadly actions.

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BoatOwner July 13, 2023 - 6:17 am

As a boat owner this kind of stuff scares me, i hope people realise jumping from a moving boat is dangerous. stay safe folks!

BamaResident July 13, 2023 - 7:01 am

Living in Alabama and this is the first time I’ve heard of such a challenge. Thanks for clearing the air!

TikTokLuvr91 July 13, 2023 - 7:45 pm

As a TikTok user, never seen this challenge. Scary to think ppl might believe it’s true n try it tho.

MediaWatcher July 13, 2023 - 7:48 pm

It’s disappointing how fast false information spreads. Hope the media outlets who reported it first make a correction.

FactCheckFan July 13, 2023 - 10:10 pm

Thumbs up for the great fact checking work! We need more of this in a world full of misinformation. Keep it up, AP!

JamesO July 14, 2023 - 4:33 am

wow! hard to believe what gets circulated as news these days, always good to double check facts!


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