NYC women have been sharing allegations of being punched by strangers for years. Why are these videos going viral now?

The videos are both a result of and contributions to the larger national conversation around safety in big cities across the U.S.

Screenshots of three women from separate TikTok videos.
@halleykate via TikTok, @sirmaligizem via TikTok, @mikaylatoninato via TikTok

For the past week, several 20-something women have posted TikTok videos alleging that a stranger punched them while they were walking around the Union Square neighborhood in New York City.

The videos have almost taken on a life of their own — surpassing social media conversations and local news coverage. Three videos from the past week alone have more than 54 million views on TikTok, which is significant given they aren’t in response to an existing news story nor do they supplement a police report. In fact, the videos are both a result of and contributions to the larger national conversation around safety in big cities across the U.S.

On Wednesday a spokesperson for the NYPD confirmed to Yahoo News that they had arrested and charged a suspect with assault in response to a March 26 police report filed by one of the women. The investigation is ongoing, they said, but they did not say whether the suspect was connected to other cases from the viral videos.

What is going on with these videos?

There have been two waves of women posting similar videos about encounters with strangers on New York City streets, with the second wave garnering the most media attention.

Back in September 2023, Patch reported three separate women came forward on TikTok to accuse strangers of punching them in the face — both on the streets and in the subway — with the most viral video of the bunch accumulating 1.1 million views.

But when content creator Halley Mcgookin posted multiple videos on March 25 to her 1.2 million followers, some with her in tears, claiming she had been punched in the forehead by a stranger, the topic exploded. Mcgookin’s first video has over 41 million views.

The virality of Mcgookin’s video may have inspired other women to come forward. Another TikTok user named Mikayla Toninato shared on her account that she experienced the same thing in the same neighborhood two days earlier, on March 23. She tagged Mcgookin in her video, which now has almost 11 million views.

Then a third woman, tagging both Mcgookin and Toninato, posted a video, claiming she also had been punched in the head by a stranger in New York around the same time. Her video has over 2.5 million views.

The allegations didn’t stop there. After watching the TikToks, amateur internet sleuths started digging and found more women filming videos about getting punched by a stranger. One, from Feb. 7, shows user Gizem Sirmali, who had just moved to New York from Turkey, claiming she had been punched on the way to work. It has nearly 200,000 views and a majority of the top comments are from the last two days.

Another video, from March 17, shows TikTok user Olivia Brand recap her reaction to being punched by a stranger in a 13-second video that now has 5 million views. Most of her comments are from March 26, with several viewers saying things like, “This is the second sidewalk punching video I’ve seen today” and “You and Halley need to compare notes.”

Has the NYPD commented on these videos?

The NYPD’s deputy commissioner of public information confirmed to Yahoo News that two women in their 20s filed police reports on March 17 and March 25.

The spokesperson said the NYPD was investigating a harassment report from a 25-year-old woman who claims to have been punched in the head while walking her dog, which lines up with the details from Brand’s video. The March 25 filing, which was for assault, described a 23-year-old woman alleging she fell to the ground after being hit around 10:20 a.m., which aligns with Mcgookin’s allegations.

The NYPD would not confirm to Yahoo News whether there has been a notable uptick in police filings from young women alleging a stranger punched them in a public space. They also did not confirm whether the cases were connected or related. The suspect they arrested is thought to be involved in Mcgookin’s case.

Why are these videos suddenly going viral now?

The differences between the September 2023 videos and the ones from this week are the dramatic increases in viewership, engagement and coverage. Women’s safety issues have been a concern long before September too — so what makes these recent stories so viral?

It has to do with the timing. A Gallup survey from November found that personal safety fears were at a 30-year high for Americans, which the organization attributed partly to increased media coverage of crimes. It doesn’t even have to be a news outlet covering the crime, as evidenced by the millions of people who watched the TikTok videos.

There has been a lot of crime talk, especially in New York City, in the past few months — sometimes without any data to back it up — which only adds to the public perception that crime is rising.

FBI data published last week suggests crime has decreased in the past year, according to NBC News. In New York City, NYPD data from February shows a decrease in shootings and murders compared to February 2023. At the same time, felony assault rose more than 3%. Year to date, misdemeanor assault complaints have risen more than 10%.

The New York Times argued that it’s the “blown-out coverage” of crime that has made New Yorkers afraid. The TikTok videos contribute to that nonstop coverage — especially videos like Mcgookin’s that show her immediately after the alleged attack — and add fuel to the fire.