In this month’s installment of The Mixed-Up Files of Inkstick Media, we’re not just pulling at the threads connecting glitter, the condiment aisle of the grocery store, and an Italian club banger with national security, we’re looking at the entire web of how every single topic is connected to every single other. And no, the answer is not just TikTok (though admittedly, that’s where more and more of my article ideas come from lately). Instead, with the democratization of information online comes great responsibility to sleuth out what online sleuths might be trying to “uncover” for us and how all these roads lead to fascism (well, hopefully not).
There’s something about the “personability” of TikTok content, the way its videos can be about a topic you’ve never once thought about or cared for a day in your life, yet there you are slumped over in bed watching 10-minute videos about where all the glitter has gone, “who” owns the condiments aisle in your grocery store, which neighbor is in the wrong over a fence or over sidewalk chalk, or who “owns” DIY home décor ideas… I could keep going. Because by “you,” I actually mean “me,” lying contorted in bed so as not to disturb my slumbering dog while the TikTok chiropractors cracking backs like taekwondo students snapping wooden planks salivate at the prospective “major bag alert” when I walk in complaining of a stiff lower back.
“Rage farming” is the term for purposefully posting content that infuriates other users to drive up engagement regardless of whether the replies are positive or negative, but there are plenty of other ways to farm for engagement on TikTok that don’t require rage, just curiosity. So indulge me as I share some of my favorite harvests from online curiosity-farming and, as usual, the ways in which I pester my friends about it all being related to national security.
Since 2018, there has been a widespread internet fascination with an alleged glitter shortage and where all the glitter could possibly be going. As with most internet urban legends, this mystery underwent multiple online iterations of viral intrigue since a 2018 New York Times article by Caity Weaver, “What is Glitter.” She describes communications with one of the largest glitter manufacturers in the country, Glitterex, with a profound mystique. “We are a very private company,” they’d write to Weaver at one point. When asked who the company’s biggest client is, their spokesperson responds, “I absolutely know that I can’t [tell you] … you would never guess it.” When asked why, the company replies, “Because they don’t want anyone to know that it is glitter.”
A post from the same day as the New York Times piece in the subreddit r/UnsolvedMysteries gained moderate traction with a theory on where the glitter could be going, and The Cut also released a piece further questioning the meaning of Weaver’s article. Afterward, though, very little movement seemed to take place on the mystery until a TikTok video by @chuppl posted a re-enactment of Weaver’s phone call. The conspiracy theories took off; videos stating a user’s personal beliefs about where the glitter is going flooded my “For You” page with possible explanations as varied as toothpaste to the military. The most popular opinion by far, from what I could see on my feed, was boat paint. Why did boats need that much glitter in their paint though!?
Three months ago, on June 30, 2023, Chuppl followed up their TikTok from several months prior with a Youtube-video-essay investigation that seems to have cracked the case. Although I’ll skip the Dateline-style intense background music and details of their investigation timeline, I will first note that I ran to watch this video as soon as it went live, not because of any expectation of the answer but because of my own buy-in to the widespread curiosity around GlitterGate. My jaw hit the floor as the famous J. Robert Oppenheimer quote, “I am become death,” played around the 7-minute mark. The inventor of modern glitter was also a scientist on The Manhattan Project.
According to the video, Henry Ruschmann Sr. was a German immigrant in New Jersey who specialized in precision cutting technology. He was asked to help cut mica into a washer through which the plutonium rod would be run within the core of the bomb. In cutting the mica to shape, flakes of the material blew off and became modern glitter. And these byproducts have led to other material creations, such as radar chaff, or become incorporated in just about all the ways glitter has been alleged to be used in the forum threads on the GlitterGate conspiracy. Why the level of secrecy and severity from the Glitterex spokesperson, then? Well, perhaps in an unexpectedly predictable outcome: because of military project secrecy.
As it turns out, most “glitter companies” are not glitter companies but are precision cutting companies. These companies work through additional third parties, such as Bendix or Westinghouse, on a variety of military contracts. Chuppl’s channel has teamed up with some lawyers to submit Freedom of Information Act requests for more info, but that trail has yet to come to fruition.
The Condiments Aisle
A couple of months ago, the account @cancelthisclothingcompany (aka Ian) began going viral for a series of videos in which the user would take a picture of a grocery store aisle (like for condiments, cereal, fruit juices, you name it) and then look up each brand to find if it’s family-owned or a part of large conglomerate of corporations. And I was an early follower of these videos, too, given how badly I clearly need to touch grass. Row after row of red marker scratching out the boxes or bottles of products not owned by small, family, or local businesses was jarring, and at some point, viewers began to notice a pattern of whom these products belonged to. Most often in his videos, it was Vanguard or Blackrock. And that’s the problem. Well, it’s one of several.
With the normalization of deterrence theory also comes a normalization of the deep-seated fear of nuclear war for both non-nuclear weapons states and nuclear weapons states alike. People aren’t lacking in context for nuclear weapons and national security; they’re embedded in a context that is either incomplete or misaligned.
As our OP (“original poster” for those of you lucky enough to know peace with or without WiFi) gained more followers and more attention, some began noticing the content posted in between the grocery store aisle investigations. In a since deleted video, he exclaims, “F— it! Maybe adrenochrome is real!” referring to the conspiracy theory that global and Hollywood elites run child trafficking rings to harvest the chemical adrenochrome from children’s blood in pursuit of eternal youth. Do any elements of that sound familiar? If so, that’s because it’s a very shabby rebranding of the antisemitic conspiracy of blood libel and is quite popular among the notorious followers of QAnon.
Now, returning to the rate of appearance of Vanguard and Blackrock in his grocery store videos, it’s important to clarify how our OP defines “ownership” of a company. Many of the companies surveyed in his videos are owned by a larger parent company, which are in turn often publicly traded. For example, Hidden Valley Ranch is owned by Clorox, and Clorox is publicly traded. The videos don’t stop at Clorox as the “owners” of Hidden Valley Ranch though. Ian then looks at who owns the largest shares of stock in Clorox, and usually, it’s the asset management companies Blackrock and Vanguard. The key descriptor here is “asset management,” meaning that on the surface level, Blackrock and/or Vanguard own the largest total portion of shares in several major companies, but they do so only on behalf of their clients. Put more simply, Blackrock and Vanguard are the investment middlemen between their clients and the companies their clients wish to invest in.
And if QAnon blood libel allegations aren’t enough to make you question this user’s credibility, let me end this section with a mention that ScienceTok phenom Hank Green, in the middle of his cancer battle, took to his phone to debunk a different video from Ian about sunscreen in which he claimed, “We are literally rubbing cancer into our skin!” then goes on to misrepresent the science of sunscreen, sun exposure, and skin cancer development.
Italian Club Bops and Trump’s Mugshot
While I can’t say for sure how large my reader base is (and I refuse to ask for the numbers for fear of rejection), I feel there may be a clear split between my friends who think my articles are interesting and cool even when they don’t fully understand what I’m getting at and my network of nuclear besties who are even more deeply entrenched in the political zeitgeist than I am. Which is to say, calling Italy’s current Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, a Mussolini sympathizer at best and full-fledged fascist at worst (assuming there’s a difference there) has like a 50/50 chance of surprising you right now. Surprising to me was how exactly Giorgia attained the office of prime minister.
Forgive my repeated citing of TikTok videos, but it’s really become my new playground for information discovery, similar to my school-age relationship with Wikipedia in the 2010s. The account @thepocketreport (aka Polly) first introduced me to the story of a 2019 rally held by Brothers of Italy meant to garner public attention through anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. At this rally, Meloni gave a speech yelling, “My name is Giorgia. I am a woman. I am a mother. I am a Christian.” General reception was ridicule. Ridicule to the point of two DJs remixing Meloni’s audio from the speech into a dance track that went viral well beyond the club scene. Hence, her public persona became more known for its association with a banger (translation: a popular and catchy song one might bang their head to) than to her neo-fascist ideology.
Polly is cautious to remark that this club hit was not the sole or even primary reason Giorgia was able to ascend from fringe political goonie to the position of prime minister, but she draws a link between the way media is consumed uncritically of its intent for satire or genuine endorsement and an audience’s future ability to differentiate the meme from reality. At the end of her video, she compares the Meloni dance track with merch of Trump’s mugshot blended with Taylor Swift Eras Tour iconography. As Polly puts it in her TikTok, “the goal of a lot of these crazy conservative characters that we see isn’t always to get your vote or even convince you of their reasoning outright. It is to normalize their dangerous ideas being part of everyday media consumption, thus everyday life.”
Does Your Head Hurt Yet?
It’s not just the strobe lights accompanying Giorgia’s hit song. Information (and misinformation) is abundant online. Even just collecting and compiling these three examples has left my head spinning, and that’s not to mention the plethora of other examples I’ve left out for the sake of length. Culture and cultural narratives are a game of telephone with a lot of very important details often so muffled in the process that they end up lost to a void or warped into unrecognizable garble. Glitter was ripe for this because it’s a surprisingly difficult-to-understand material whose production process is not well known or understood.
Certainly, arguments could be made about the level of influence corporate money from companies like Blackrock or Vanguard have, but understanding the precise financial mechanisms through which companies may or may not make these maneuvers isn’t quite as simple as looking up stockholder shares. And I’d be one of the last people to say we shouldn’t make fun of politicians and the funny shit they say at press conferences, but there is a point to be made about the decontextualization of that shit they’re saying and subsequent defanging of their rhetoric and the harm they cause.
Now, I chose these examples of investigative deep dives primarily occurring on TikTok for multiple reasons. Between GlitterGate and Ian’s grocery store inquiries, there’s an overpowering sense of mystery and secrecy in the hunt for answers. Where is the glitter going? Who is “they” and why don’t “they” want us to know about “it”? Why are Blackrock and Vanguard getting all up in my condiments and box cereal business? But then a key difference is how intentional that secrecy actually is. Maybe the military’s use of glitter truly is a national security secret, but Googling how asset management companies function doesn’t require a high-level security clearance. I’m somewhat sorry to report, however, that Ian’s account, as of Sept. 12, 2023, has 949.9k followers. Apparently, talking about how difficult buying from small, family-owned businesses with a goofy mustache isn’t too far off from inadvertently ending up a household name for an Italian club bop.
The adage is “people fear what they don’t understand,” but TikTok and a lot of online spaces often feel more like “people devour what they don’t understand.” Frame it as an unsolved mystery, ask a leading question, make people suddenly wonder about a facet of life they’ve always taken for granted, and that’s step one of curiosity-farming. The less context people already have when entering a new field of information, the easier the catch. So then, why, in the United States, is it so hard to convince some people of the perils of nuclear weapons and deterrence theory when public education on the issues is little more than a paragraph in most US history books?
Perhaps because the assumption to work under isn’t that people know very little, if anything, about the production processes and applications of glitter or the complex ins and outs of our global financial systems so, therefore, are ripe for new information on the topics of international arms control and nuclear safeguards. Rather, the assumption is that people have already had specific narratives plopped into the junk drawer of their brains about the necessity of nuclear weapons and the unrealistic nature of total disarmament. Top that off with the layers of nuance about international law and scientific intricacies for monitoring nuclear technology, the uphill battle to shift understandings of national security becomes a vertical climb up a rocky, seaside cliff. But the cognitive dissonance lies in that normalized belief and a false sense of security provided by nuclear weapons-backed deterrence despite everyone’s vivid and widespread panic at President Vladimir Putin’s threats to initiate nuclear combat over Ukraine.
With the normalization of deterrence theory also comes a normalization of the deep-seated fear of nuclear war for both non-nuclear weapons states and nuclear weapons states alike. People aren’t lacking in context for nuclear weapons and national security; they’re embedded in a context that is either incomplete or misaligned. So this may be an ill-timed and shameless self-plug given we’re at the end of a 2,500+ word essay about TikTok drama, but I find myself trapped in a pretzel twist of limbs, my dog, and my phone for a reason.
Panicking and shouting about nuclear apocalypse will never pull views like Addison Rae (whether or not that seems “right” to you). Watching in real-time a “regular everyday Joe”-type of person unlock the answers to a grand, unsolved mystery (whether or not it ever actually was a mystery to begin with) scratches a new kind of itch entirely separate from the usually rage-farming or doom-scrolling practices of online users. Anyone could tell you how important skillful storytelling is to the promotion of movement and awareness building, but no substitute exists for the trial and error necessary for finding your individual narrative voice that sticks, without spreading misinformation. And seeing as how you’ve made it this far in my article, I’d wager that this column’s and this outlet’s approach to storytelling for national security has some tack. So, stick around with us some more?