Adventure app Randonautica is fueling wildly unfounded conspiracy theories on TikTok
Randonautica videos continue to flourish online, and so are the conspiracy theories the adventure app has spawned.
The urban exploring app created a genre of YouTube and TikTok videos that marry the supernatural with the internet’s obsession with mystery and true crime. Randonautica, which coincidentally led a group of Seattle teenagers to an actual suitcase full of human remains last year, describes itself as “somewhere in the middle between a game, science, art, and spirituality.” Thrilling content keeps audiences engaged, but conspiracy theorists are using viral Randonautica videos to justify harassing real people.
Randonautica sends users on a local adventure by generating random GPS coordinates within a certain radius of the user’s location. The app encourages users to mentally set an intention for their journey, and its founders believe that the user will find something related to their intention at this location.
Randonautica co-founder Joshua Lengfelder compares the app to other online adventures that take participants into the real world, like geocaching and games such as Pokémon Go.
Taking a step into the world with fresh eyes and escaping your day-to-day routine can be a highly beneficial experience.
“Randonauts have realized they were in love, dealt with grief and remorse, had ‘signs’ that led them to a new, better path in life, and so much more,” Lengfelder said in an email to Mashable, adding that studies suggest that spending time outdoors is good for health. “Taking a step into the world with fresh eyes and escaping your day-to-day routine can be a highly beneficial experience.”
Enthusiasts known as Randonauts believe that positive intentions yield positive outcomes, and negative intentions yield negative ones. Randonauts who used the app intending to find something evil regale followers with stories of supernatural encounters.
The fact that the app led those teenagers to the bodies, which was used as evidence to convict the victims’ killer of second degree murder, added to the belief from some that Randonautica can have metaphysical properties.
An unproven conspiracy theory circulating on TikTok alleges that multiple businesses near a non-commercial airport in California are complicit in a child trafficking ring. The clips have since racked up millions of views.
It all started with a Randonautica video.
The birth of a conspiracy theory
A dedicated community of self-proclaimed Randonauts have used Reddit to share their experiences since 2019. The app Randonautica, which was released in February 2020, sparked newfound interest in the hobby since exploring outdoors was one of the few COVID-safe activities to do during lockdown.
TikTok creator and musician Reve Kalell, who posts under the handle r33vo.wav, claimed that the app led him to a “suspicious” industrial area the first time he used it. He set his intention to going “deeper in the mystery of life” in an effort to “glitch out the matrix.” The app, he said, brought him to a cabinet store coincidentally named Matrix.
In the first video, posted in July 2020, Kalell said he was suspicious of the porn-viewing booth manufacturer and Star Trek toy company that neighbored Matrix. He posited that the adult film industry shouldn’t be operating so close to a business making children’s products, and then noted random inconsistencies in another nearby business’s Google listing. It mistakenly listed the business as “Sales Multi Child,” and described it as a children’s clothing company. Anyone can create a business listing on Google, and even if owners claim it, anyone can suggest edits. The listing has been corrected since Kalell posted about it last year, but he continued leading viewers down what would turn into an extensive multi-video rabbit hole.
Through a series of wild conjectures also naming other businesses in the area — including a local hospice care center, a company that makes garage door operating systems, and nearby hotel participating in a program to shelter high-risk unhoused populations during the pandemic — TikTok viewers convinced themselves that the businesses were involved in a human trafficking ring.
A November 2020 police chase that ended at a nearby non-commercial airport further raised his suspicions that the area was host to criminal activity; in a January 2021 TikTok, Kalell used the suspect’s rambling about being followed by the government as justification for his theory. The suspect underwent a mental health evaluation upon arrest, according to police.
TikTok users are running with it. There isn’t much of a unified theory, and like how most conspiracy theories play out, Kalell and his followers are making any connection they can to justify their belief in this human trafficking ring.
The conspiracy spins out of control
Some believe the porn booths — euphemistically referred to as “adult arcades” — are a front for auctioning underaged girls. Kalell posted a video of an apparently defunct ambulance parked in front of the nearby hospice care center, and commenters jumped to assumptions that the center is part of the black market human organ trade. One viewer was alarmed by the Star Trek toy company’s online description for its products, which cheekily describe the plush recreations of the show’s Tribbles as “guaranteed not to reproduce.” In the show, the purring, fluffy alien species does nothing but eat and breed, and its exponentially reproducing population comically threatens the ship’s food stores.
It’s a Star Trek reference, goobers.
“It’s a Star Trek reference, goobers,” another TikTok user responded to the alarmist Tribble comment.
The comments could be jokes riffing on the fringe conspiracy theories that bubble up online every day, but they could also be serious enough to inspire viewers to harass the employees of the businesses Kalell named. Evidently, enough were.
He posted the most recent video in the 14-video series titled “Detective Randonaut” on Monday. The series has nearly 5 million views collectively, which is modest for TikTok standards, but overwhelming for the businesses named. Kalell posted videos “investigating” these places in person this month, and emboldened by his visits, viewers flooded the businesses with calls accusing them of human trafficking.
“It’s real businesses, they need to do more research,” one employee, who did not want to be named due to privacy concerns, told Mashable. “That’s the messed up part.”
In later videos, Kalell clarified that he wasn’t making “any direct accusations,” but wanted to point out “red flags in the area.” He believes that Randonautica led him to the cabinet store for a reason, he told Mashable in Instagram DMs, and posted the videos to alert viewers to what he thought was a sketchy place.
“It’s just people putting two and two together and getting eight.”
“Including the Seattle case, Randonautica shows us that areas with low foot traffic are often hot spots for criminal activity,” Kalell added, referencing the teenagers who stumbled upon the bodies.
Kalell said he tipped off local law enforcement about what he believed was a shady industrial area, and will take another break from posting about it because, he admits, the conspiracy theories are spinning out of control. In his last video posted Monday, he retracted claims that residents of the hotel participating in the COVID-safe shelter program for the unhoused were forced into solitary confinement, and clarified that residents only had to isolate if they were exposed to COVID or were displaying symptoms of it. He also asked viewers to stop harassing the businesses he named in his series.
“The hospice company was getting calls asking if they sell organs. I never even mentioned anything like that,” Kalell continued. “It’s just people putting two and two together and getting eight.”
Why people believe in Randonautica
Randonauting isn’t meant to be so sinister. But the app’s use of quantum physics, a trending interest in the metaphysical, and anecdotal reports of what Randonauts find further cement the community’s belief that the random coordinates are part of something deeper. It’s fodder for conspiracy theories.
The coordinates Randonautica provide are determined by a quantum random number generator, a tool also also used in cybersecurity, since the numbers are less predictable than numbers generated by a traditional encryption algorithm. Randonautica uses the Australian National University’s generator, which produces numbers by measuring fluctuations of particles in a vacuum.
Lengfelder believes that the coordinates generated by the app’s quantum random number generator are inextricably linked to a person’s intentions. “Experimenting with mind-machine interaction,” he told Wired UK, is as much part of the game as exploring. Randonauting revolves around “the hypothesis that consciousness can influence the distribution of random numbers.”
Why do so many people who use Randonautica believe in its metaphysical traits? Because it happened to them.
“Even the foremost experts in mind matter interaction have limited working theories,” Lengfelder explained in an email to Mashable. “So why do so many people who use Randoanutica believe in its metaphysical traits? Because it happened to them.”
Many enjoy randonauting for the experience of visiting somewhere truly random. Others who align with trending mysticism genuinely think that the coordinates are a manifestation of the user’s intention.
Setting your intention as “something romantic,” like one couple who shared their adventure on Reddit did, may take you to the church where your parents first met. Another Redditor chose to “find some vibrancy,” and the app led them to a group of elderly ladies dancing together during sunset. One Redditor, who said their intention was to find something magical, followed Randonautica’s directions to a bunny snacking on a dandelion.
Not all Randonautica adventures are this wholesome, and a morbid story makes for better content. Randonauts who set their intentions to phrases like “death” and “evil” claim to have unsettling, paranormal experiences. The most popular videos emulate The Blair Witch Project‘s shaky, adrenaline-pumping footage, encapsulated in a one to three minute TikTok. YouTube is ripe with Randonautica compilations of adventurers claiming to encounter crop circles, occult rituals, and otherworldly entities. Many are staged jump scares, with creators building suspense as they travel to remote areas and then spooking the viewer with clowns and demonic figures. Theatrics tend to be obvious, but for horror fans, Randonautica videos are still a fun watch.
Most take these horror clips with a grain of salt. But hard evidence like the bodies located in Seattle, combined with the internet’s ability to spread unverified claims, feed conspiracy theories like the one born from Kalell’s videos. Conspiracy theories are often rooted in some shred of truth: a fact is taken out of context, twisted beyond recognition, and spread across social media. The misinformation spreading on TikTok puts the people who live and work in the area Kalell is “investigating” at risk of harassment and violence from conspiracy believers.
Based on leaked emails between a donor and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, extremists on 4chan claimed that plans to potentially organize a fundraiser were code for criminal activity, which evolved into the conspiracy known as “PizzaGate.” The phrase “Epstein didn’t kill himself” tore through fringe forums and circulated on mainstream social media. Last year, viral social media posts claimed that Wayfair was trafficking children based on high-priced listings that shared the same name as some missing children. The fact that Wayfair had supplied furniture to a detention center for migrant children in 2019 fueled the conspiracy further.
These conspiracy theories overshadowed the actual truths they were born from, and the fantastical claims made by extremists took attention from the very real problems exposed in these examples.
Kalell is still convinced that something is off about the area he shows in his videos, and that the conspiracies spun from his series shouldn’t detract from that.
“Before you know it some lunatic is approaching the place,” Kalell said, in reference to the PizzaGate conspiracy theorist who fired an AR-15 rifle in the restaurant mentioned in the leaked DNC emails. “But does that negate the content of the emails?”
He does appear to regret catalyzing the harassment toward these businesses. Kalell said he wants to continue making “Detective Randonaut” content, but not until he takes measures to protect “any potential innocent businesses that are shown.”
“I don’t want to be a contributing factor to that misinformation,” Kalell said. “I also want to preserve my freedom to explore and speak my opinion. Unfortunately, those two concepts seem to oppose each other in ways that are out of my control.”
Lengfelder understands the righteous drive that Randonautica users like Kalell may have when using the app. He also cautions against believing the viral tales of stumbling upon evil that self-proclaimed Randonauts share online. Upon completing their journey, Randonautica users can record their experience in a trip report, which includes a location pinpoint, photos, a description of the user’s intention, and a description of their experience with tags. Then, users can save it for their personal records or publish it online for other Randonauts to read. Less than 1 percent of Randonautica user reports are tagged for negative outcomes, he said, and “many stories are often overdramatized by thrill seeking audiences and content creators.”
The ultimate purpose of the app isn’t to uncover some deeper truth, despite what conspiracy theorists and horror seekers may hope. Pseudoscience or not, Randonautica gives users a chance to break out from their routines and shift their relationship to the world around them. Shaking up their day-to-day could involve investigating a great mystery (or completely unfounded conspiracy theory) but not every Randonaut trip needs to be so intense. Just taking a walk around your neighborhood is enough.
“When asked if negative intentions are OK, the response is simple,” Lengfelder said. “Why seek out the negative where there could be so many beautiful things that come from exploring with a positive outlook and sincere curiosity for the world around you?”