Teen dies mimicking Douyin stunt. Who’s at fault?

Society & Culture

Pictured: Professional video blogger “Ms Yeah”

You’ve likely seen videos like this on YouTube and TikTok: An on-camera personality tinkers with unusual objects to create devices of questionable safety and borderline practicality. If there is a dangerous component, it gets glossed over.

A recent fatal incident (in Chinese) in China has brought this genre of videos to mainstream attention. On August 22, two teenage girls in Shandong Province — 14-year-old Zhōu Zhé 周哲 and 12-year-old Xiǎo Yǔ 小雨 — were rushed to emergency rooms after trying to make popcorn with a pop can and bucket of concentrated alcohol. Without any protection or proper guidance from adults, they first ignited a flame, which they decided wasn’t big enough. When they poured more alcohol onto the fire, an explosion occurred, which severely injured Xiao Yu and caused Zhou Zhe’s death.

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The teens, it turns out, were copying popular video blogger Zhōu Xiǎohuì 周晓慧, who boasts more than 25 million followers on TikTok’s one year-older predecessor Douyin (where she goes by Bàngōngshì Xiǎoyě 办公室小野) and nearly 7.5 million subscribers on YouTube (where she goes by “Ms Yeah”). In one of her most-viewed videos, which the teenage girls were trying to recreate, the 25-year-old content creator uses an empty Pepsi can and an alcohol burner to pop popcorn on her office desk.

Describing herself as “a walking recipe from Mars,” Zhou’s brand is built around using unconventional ways of making food. In one video published in 2017, she cooks a large plate of crayfish with a popcorn popper. “We can think of a hundred ways to cook them, yet throwing them into the popcorn popper is definitely the coolest. You agree?” the clip’s caption reads. Another video released last year shows her using an air purifier to make BBQ and hotpot in the office.

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Most of these videos offer no safety warnings, nor does Zhou take any safety precautions. After the deadly incident in Shandong, the girls’ families, along with other concerned parents, called out the vlogger for her irresponsible behavior. Many of her recent videos appear to have ratcheted up the danger (though in this one from May, titled “Office Chef Cooks in Real Laboratory with Goggles on,” at least she’s wearing goggles).

In response, Zhou issued a statement on September 10, saying that the accident had put her through “some of the darkest days” in her life. While she vowed to offer as much assistance as she could for Xiao Yu’s treatment and conduct a “comprehensive review” of her content, the vlogger seeked to absolve herself by saying that she isn’t the first person to make popcorn that way, and her video can’t be said to have directly caused the accident. But according to a close friend of Zhou Zhe and Xiaoyu, the girls were huge fans of Zhou, and had been contemplating emulating her stunts for a while.

On the Chinese internet, the accident prompted a debate as to who should bear the blame. In an online poll (in Chinese) created by Sina Tech, which has gotten nearly 10,000 responses so far, about half of the participants said that Ms Yeah was innocent, arguing that all she did was put out content without encouraging anyone to engage in dangerous activities, while a quarter of the respondents believed that both the girls’ parents and Ms Yeah shared responsibility. Meanwhile, there’s a cluster of internet users who are condemning Douyin for allowing harmful and dangerous content to proliferate on its platform.