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They Were Punched and Took to TikTok

In an undated photo provided by Mikayla Toninato, who said she was attacked in New York City earlier this week. (via Mikayla Toninato via The New York Times)
In an undated photo provided by Mikayla Toninato, who said she was attacked in New York City earlier this week. (via Mikayla Toninato via The New York Times)

NEW YORK — A series of viral videos from several young female TikTok users, who posted emotional dispatches about getting punched on city streets, caused concern this week about the topic among fans online.

Halley Kate Mcgookin, a social media influencer with more than 1 million followers, posted Monday morning that she was sending an email on her phone while walking in Manhattan when a man with a dog came up to her and hit her in the face without warning.

“You guys, I was literally just walking and a man came up and punched me in the face,” Mcgookin said in a video she recorded after the encounter that has been seen more than 46 million times. “Oh, my God, it hurts so bad, I can’t even talk. Literally, I fell to the ground, and now this giant goose egg is forming.”

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Shana Davis-Ross, a spokesperson for Mcgookin, declined several requests for comment on the incident. Police officials said Wednesday that they had made an arrest in an assault matching the details of Mcgookin’s case.

Other women have recently shared similar experiences on TikTok. Mikayla Toninato, a 27-year-old student at the Parsons School of Design, posted that she was assaulted on 13th Street and Fifth Avenue. Karina Dunford, a 24-year-old model, also said she was attacked.

The random assaults come at a time when anxieties about crime in the city are escalating. A recent decision by New York Gov. Kathy Hochul to deploy the National Guard and the State Police to monitor the New York City subway system was largely in response to these concerns, although high-profile episodes that get a lot of online coverage often have the potential to fuel a misleading impression of crime.

The Police Department declined to directly respond to questions about whether the incidents were part of a wider trend, pointing instead to a previous statement: “The NYPD is aware of a viral video circulating on social media depicting a woman who was randomly assaulted in an unprovoked attack. The individual has been arrested and charged.”

Toninato said in a phone interview that she was on her way home around 2 p.m. Monday when a man approached her near Union Square and struck her in the face.

“I didn’t see him coming because I was looking down, but it was a pretty empty sidewalk and there was nobody around me,” she said. “Then he punched me and I screamed and I turned around to see what just happened. It felt like an out-of-body experience. I couldn’t even believe what happened, and I turned around and the man was staring back at me while walking away.”

Toninato said that when she texted her friends to tell them what had just happened, they responded by sending her Mcgookin’s video.

On Tuesday, after being urged by her TikTok followers, Toninato went to the emergency room, where she said doctors told her she had a concussion. She also had a black eye and a chipped tooth. A doctor’s note reviewed by The New York Times confirmed that Toninato was seen at New York University Langone on Tuesday.

Dunford said in a phone interview that she was walking on Avenue of the Americas near 23rd Street on Tuesday when a man approached her from behind and hit her hard in the back of the head with a closed fist. When she turned around, he was staring at her, holding his arm out, seemingly ready to attack again. She screamed, and bystanders physically separated him from her, before he wandered off.

Mayor Eric Adams said in a news conference Tuesday that the city was troubled by “random acts of violence.”

According to New York City police statistics, felony assaults were up 3% from the year before, and misdemeanor assaults were up 10% over the same period.

In another interview with “The Reset Talk Show” last week, Adams said social media could make these acts seem more common than they are. “When you have random acts of violence that is focused on repeatedly,” he said, “showing videos over and over again — it plays on how people feel in the subway system.”

Adam Scott Wandt, an associate professor and deputy chair for technology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said: “When a story about being punched in the head goes viral on social media, and then it travels across the country, it can quickly overshadow the fact that New York City is also a relatively safe city to walk around in. Incidents like this on social media can create the impression New York City is a far more violent and crime-ridden city than it actually is.”

“It’s also important to remember the news media likes covering stories about violence, and that people are drawn to watching social media about violence,” he added, “which all increases the chances of something going viral and getting seen by many.”

As the TikTok dispatches began to accumulate this week, users flooded comment sections to express their concern, many of them relaying their own similar and distressing experiences.

Toninato, who is originally from Minnesota and moved to New York in August, said the incident made her fearful of leaving her home.

“I never would have thought to post a TikTok about this, but when my friend sent me Halley’s video, it just made me aware of the fact that it might be a repeat offense,” she said. “I just wanted to warn other people and try to stop this from happening again.”

Dunford echoed her sentiment.

“I’m not one to make TikToks — it’s like the second video I’ve ever made in my life,” she said in the interview. “My intention here very, very clearly is that people should know that this is going on.”

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