Becoming the main character on TikTok is a risky business. Whether you made a crappy tattoo or left your young child home alone, you’ll now have thousands of strangers sharing their thoughts and opinions on every aspect of what they deem to be the worst parts of your life. Your folly becomes your whole sense of being in their parasocial relationship. While some manage to make an entire career out of having the spotlight aimed directly at them, others simply can’t handle the heat.
After achieving virality in mid-May, Ken Waks lost his job and has all but disappeared from the app.
The TikToker with over one million subscribers became one of the most talked about subjects on social media in mid-May after he claimed in multiple viral videos that he was helping the FBI and private investigators solve a series of gruesome murders across the United States. But after he started promoting an app he worked for, online theorists started to question the validity of his true crime claims.
“There’s a lot I’ve learned from this,” Ken told Centennial World. “I learned to keep the different parts of my life separate in the content I create.”
Ken started posting on TikTok in 2021, slowly building up an audience with videos on his life and stories about brands. He’d use his marketing background to create multiple viral hits talking about branded juicy topics like some employee DoorDash drama and a time Gordon Ramsay cried. Over the course of 2022, his account went from 1,000 followers to nearly 700,000 according to Socialblade.
But in 2023, his content took a sudden swerve to true crime when on March 9th, he uploaded a video with 1.2 million views about how there might be a “connection” between people going missing in Chicago and that he was offered a ride by strangers twice that week. His content suddenly became completely engrossed in the macabre, posting multiple videos about missing people in Chicago, Austin, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and Boston, each gaining hundreds of thousands of millions of views.
“I began raising public awareness after my second experience of a car trying to lure me in when I was walking home at night in Chicago,” Ken said. “The story quickly expanded from there and my effort was to collect as much information as possible from those who had a similar experience to my own.”
Ken soon built up a massive audience that was invested in his detective skills, filling his comments section with their own theories and questions on Boston’s “Smiley Face Killer.” And the content creator was giving them what they wanted: throughout April he shared maps he had made of where people had gone missing or murdered with his “team,” he dueted strangers that claimed they had almost been abducted, and he collected testimonials from those who claimed they had survived an attack.
Then, in a video from April 23, Ken claimed that a private investigator visited him at home who was looking into the “smiley face group.” Ken told Centennial World that he had been in contact with “three different private investigators and one detective” and he provided us multiple emails of what appeared to be correspondence between him and private detective Jordan Scherer and NYPD detective Kevin Gannon discussing his content. Scherer confirmed to NBC that he “connected with Ken to see if his research could be useful” but was not working on a partnership” with him.
This content did wonders for Ken’s metrics. In just one month, from April to May 2023, Ken gained 300,000 subscribers, putting him at over a million. But as quick as he rose, he fell just as fast.
“I just felt like something was off with the content,” TikToker Meredith Lynch told Centennial World. “And just given my impression of him that I did not find him to be trustworthy, I just didn’t believe that what he was saying was totally rooted in reality.”
With over 230,000 followers, Meredith started digging into Ken and his story, eventually uncovering a LinkedIn post from his then-boss Stephen Eddy, the CEO of the app Forestye. Ken was the Chief Marketing Officer of the travel planning app.
In the deleted April 16th post, Eddy talks about how the app had a sudden influx of downloads after Ken had briefly mentioned it in an April 9th viral video. “This clever formula is highly reproducible and Ken plans to start mixing a Foresyte reference into the end of every other post.”
“Having learned the fuller details of Ken’s content choices, we certainly understand the misconceptions resulting in poor optics,” Eddy told Centennial World about the post. “Had the company fully understood the nature of Ken’s personal content and its obvious potential for controversy, we would‘ve never publicised this business activity in such a casual manner.”
Other TikTokers like Justin Burnett shared their own thoughts on Ken’s situation in multiple videos. To his audience of over 30,000 followers, the military police veteran who has dabbled in investigative work made multiple posts criticising Ken and shared that law enforcement was unlikely to work with him.
“Combining marketing and true crime is just plain unethical,” Burnett told Centennial World. “Capitalising on people’s suffering as a way to gain followers or promote your business is unethical in every way you look at it.”
On May 2nd, dressed in a suit with tears in his eyes, Ken apologised for putting Foresyte into his videos calling it a “mistake” and shared that he will no longer pursue creating content about these murders. Just one week later, Foresyte and Ken parted ways according to Insider.
“While Ken did not violate any of Foresyte’s company policies, his content choices and the resulting impacts of those choices made it difficult for both parties to move forward in a positive direction together,” Eddy told Centennial World.
By May 11th, Ken posted the last video uploaded to his TikTok channel, sharing that he “hopes this entire story saga can be the beginning of a different conversation about ethics in the digital age.” He hasn’t disappeared from the web, posting about brands, marketing, and his travels on Instagram.
This whole saga illustrates how quickly organic “advertising” can become unethical. Sprinkling in a true crime narrative alongside promotional content will clearly generate views, but it also blurs the lines between ethical advertising and deceptive tactics.
The algorithm pushed his content to an audience of millions, some of whom may have been looking for answers that they believed Ken could answer.
Ken lost his footing in the pursuit of a viral social strategy that would make his bosses proud. In the end, he lost his job, tanked his professional reputation, and destroyed his credibility as a creator— all while the TikTok hive soon moved on to their next main character.