This article by Goshe Nikolov and Fisnik Xhelili was originally published by Meta.mk and Portalb.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation. Note: Global Voices is abbreviating the name of the accused in this article as he is a minor.
“Only a genius can kill 9 young persons; he is a genius”.
This is a statement posted on the social network TikTok, written above a photograph of 13-year-old K.K. from Serbia, a student accused of killing nine people — eight of his peers and a security guard — during a school shooting in Belgrade on May 3, 2023. A day after that shooting, a 21-year-old man killed eight people and wounded 14 others in another shooting spree in nearby Mladenovac.
That TikTok video has almost 620,000 views and over 90,000 likes. The user posting the video is signed with the name of the teenager who carried out the Belgrade school massacre, while the profile photo features the boy's face.
Another video posted from the same account had 1.3 million views at the time of writing this article. It presents a photo of a piece of paper, which according to the Serbia authorities, was a list of names that K.K. wanted to execute, and an English language caption reading “mission: k$ll them”. Then a photograph from the arrest of the teenager appears, followed by a gamer slang message, “Mission passed! respect+”, with uplifting music in the background.
These videos are just two of the dozens that Meta.mk and Portalb.mk reporters found on the social network TikTok when searching the tragedy that happened in Serbia.
Among the videos TikTok labels as “most popular” when searching for the shooting is a video of a Serbian girl who, during a live stream, says:
[K.], brother, we are waiting for you, we love you and hold on. You will come out [of prison] one day, but those who are two meters under will never be able to come out [from the grave]. He will come out whenever, but they will never leave their coffins.
While uttering this bizarre message, her live stream was followed by thousands of TikTok users. The account is no longer accessible, while the Serbian media, a day after her broadcast, announced that the underage girl was summoned for an interview by the police.
Nevertheless, her live-stream video can still be found and has been re-published on several profiles.
Other “most popular” content that reporters encountered included blurry footage of a person running while holding a camera, with a statement that the footage was recorded while the shooting was occurring in the school. Shots from firearms can be heard in the background of the clip.
Dozens of other videos on the same subject had millions of views, gained hundreds of thousands of likes and generated thousands of comments. Reporters also saw numerous accounts opened with the name and surname of the teenager who carried out the attack using his photographs.
Hate speech and the glorification of the murderer
Negative comments, including hate speech and praise for the murderer, abound under these posts. For instance, in one such video with over one million views, the first comments say: “He is king”, “We should bow to him”, “Sheshh that’s my boy”, etc. Popular comments on other videos demand the release of the detained teenager, expressing “love” for him and describing him as a “hero” and a “legend”.
Meta.mk and Portalb.mk reporters documented numerous videos with similar content and comments, and they are shared in multiple languages: English, Macedonian, Albanian and Serbian.
Although TikTok's policies allow distressing videos to be tagged with warning notices or removed, these videos were never taken down despite numerous complaints.
Reporters also saw videos discussing the harms of school bullying, but most of them included purported photographs of the murderer, the victims and their peers – many of them fake.
The psychology of tragedy
In a statement for Portalb.mk, sociologist Drita Memeti said that the spread of hateful rhetoric after the tragedy evidently shows that some have turned the shooter into a hero.
Social networks are platforms that enable everyone to express his/her opinion, regardless of whether that opinion is right or wrong. Exactly these comments make crime relative and provide concessions for the criminals turning him/her into heroes.
According to her, these comments are usually made by people who are angry, while the only space they have to express their opinion is through social networks. She stressed:
This phenomenon should be treated with extreme care and regulated by a specific law by state institutions, because glorifying a criminal can only produce other criminals. For every newly created situation, there are laws and order and experts trained to handle the case properly, while the rest can only extend their condolences for the victims, convey sympathy for the families and pray for such events never to happen again.
She says that excessive use of TikTok — or any social media — can have a negative effect due to the overwhelming amount of immoral content, curses, insults, advertising criminal offenses, promoting deviant behavior, etc.
“From that viewpoint — as a sociologist — I think the use of this platform should be censured as a matter of social urgency”, says Memeti.
The psychologist Edlira Destani warned that “the ramifications brought about from an event like this are hardly discussed” in social and family settings, as some distressed young people see these violent acts as models and might idolize the perpetrator.
The tragic events in Serbia thrust TikTok into the spotlight and spurred a debate about regulating social networks in neighboring North Macedonia.
Expert on communication and social networks, Bojan Kordalov, believes that the onus is now on TikTok to demonstrate that it is a credible platform in terms of security and geopolitics, but also for the security of children and young people.
“On a global level, TikTok has been subject of conversation for many years, especially in the USA, but also in European countries — regarding the consequences and the need for TikTok to prove its security in general, from a geopolitical aspect, but also in terms of security for children and young people. Therefore, TikTok needs to demonstrate and prove seriously that it really cares — through its algorithms — to change the circumstances and eliminate negative occurrences or things that are unacceptable by any law in any country.”
There is no justification for the social network not responding to these videos.
“There is no justification for glorifying murder, for glorifying massacres, for glorifying whatever that is illegal and prohibited for the growth and development of the target groups there”, added Kordalov.
The communication expert says that other popular platforms went through similar debates within the global framework.
“Something similar was happening less than a decade ago with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google. That was related to fake news at the time, but also pertaining to child protection. Many public hearings in the US Congress and even in European institutions were organized for these technological giants that had to adjust and change many of their algorithms. We would like to see such a thing happen now for the purpose of better user experience, greater protection of children and young people, but also for improved personal data protection for everyone”, stated Kordalov.
He said that all stakeholders need to network in order to decrease the negative effects of social networks and boost positive initiatives. Instead of political bickering that dominates daily news coverage, state institutions and politicians should provide positive examples for young people and promote academic and sports achievers as role models.
Authorities mulling banning TikTok
After the Minister of Education and Science of North Macedonia Jeton Shaqiri said that institutions must conduct urgent security assessments and consider limiting access to TikTok in schools, Prime Minister Dimitar Kovachevski stated that the government will first conduct a thorough analysis of the situation. For the time being, Macedonian authorities have no unified position regarding the regulation of social networks and the possible prohibition of TikTok.
Meta.mk and Portalb.mk asked TikTok officials why disturbing content glorifying the murderer was allowed to remain on the platform. We also asked the company’s opinion about the proposed action to prohibit the application in North Macedonia. Thus far, TikTok employees have not answered.
A few weeks ago, North Macedonia faced its own TikTok scandal involving an anesthesiologist who published footage from women in the Gynecology Ward in a hospital in Tetovo. He pled guilty and was sentenced to 15 months in prison for violating their privacy.
And this wasn't the first TikTok scandal in North Macedonia. In February 2023, a 14-year-old girl died from electric shock after trying to photograph herself on a loose wagon touching the electrical grid in Ilinden Municipality near Skopje. In September 2022, the public was alarmed by the TikTok challenge that made young people lie down on the streets of Skopje, waiting for a vehicle to approach them, before they fled from the scene.