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TikTok: Murder Gone Viral review – this documentary’s social media obsession is utterly bizarre

<span>Photograph: ITV</span>
Photograph: ITV

What social media’s rise is doing to our society is a question for future historians. It is as yet unclear whether it has broken our brains, destroyed our social skills and led to a generation of morally bankrupt wannabe influencers, or if that fear is just part of the natural order of things, where every generation gazes suspiciously at the youth, seeing them as too wild and transgressive.

In the case of TikTok: Murder Gone Viral, the oddly punctuated title of ITV’s three-part documentary series, it puts so much emphasis on the role of TikTok for the 2022 murders of Saqib Hussain and Hashim Ijazuddin that it oversimplifies a complex tragedy. The first episode, and the only one provided for review, begins with a recreation of the 999 call that Saqib made, as he and Hashim were being “followed by two vehicles on the A46 – they’re trying to ram me off the road”, and follows the case through to September 2023, when the TikTok influencer Mahek Bukhari and her mother Ansreen, along with two others, were found guilty of their murder (three others were convicted of manslaughter). The show is composed of police footage, recreations of interviews with journalists, investigators and the victim’s families, as well as a plethora of clips from Mahek’s social media, where she went by “May B”. Ansreen was a near-constant presence, shopping and dancing with her daughter in a codependency that feels part Grey Gardens and part Toddlers & Tiaras.

Although Mahek’s 160,000-plus followers are nothing to be sniffed at, they don’t serve as much of a motive. Her co-conspirators are identified as “followers” with a slightly sinister Manson-family-in-the-digital-age edge, but it is never clear if she was recruiting them from the comments section or if these were just mates “following” mates. What is most shocking about this horrific act, which resulted in a blazing inferno and two men who could only be identified by their dental records, is that there is a clear motive: that the 45-year-old married mother-of-two Ansreen had been having a three-year affair with 21-year-old Saqib (your maths is correct, 42 and 18), which he threatened to expose to a tight-knit Muslim community. Why she turned to her daughter, and why five others would join the plan, is barely speculated upon. Truly, who cares about Mahek’s follower count when this perverse mother-daughter dynamic would make Freud faint.

The determination to make this documentary about TikTok is frequently bizarre, with clips of the two women shown again and again, such as Ansreen saying, “I made her do it”, or a brief moment where they giggle like co-conspirators, played right after every recapping of the crime. We find out very little about the pair beyond the fact that they do cringey dances on TikTok and that Mahek is a staggeringly poor liar who goes into her police interviews with an alibi so idiotic she may as well have #GUILTYAF written across her forehead.

The talking heads aren’t the most insightful, either. ITV news reporter Rajiv Popat is adept at summarising key events, but crime journalist Tracey Kandohla comes across as a version of the Saturday Night Live character Stefon, describing how this case “has everything: love, cheating, revenge, money and ultimately murder” before coming back half an hour later to affirm it “has everything: love, obsession, blackmail” and – lest we forget – “murder”.

It is agreed by all the talking heads that Mahek’s craving of attention is the motive, which makes little sense for someone actively trying to not be found out as a murderer. The judge stated that “TikTok and Instagram are at the centre” and DI Mark Parish repeats throughout that “If it wasn’t for social media, I do believe that Saqib and Hashim would be alive today.” But to hear them speak, you’d think that no one had ever been killed pre-Instagram and it is never clear why they think the algorithm contributed to a group of people arriving at a Tesco car park with a trunkful of weapons.

By far the most profound things this documentary has to say come from the fathers of Saqib and Hashim, who seem hollowed out by grief and speak elegantly about their loss and finding the strength to fight for justice for their sons. Particularly affecting is the interview with Hashim’s father, whose son was just giving his friend a lift to Leicester. Memories of Hashim still bring a smile as he recalls: “Mashallah he was a beautiful boy and by chance, by luck, by fortune, I got to be his dad.” It’s a stark contrast to his description of the people responsible, who would arrive, defiant and jovial, to the courtroom the following year and, as he puts it: “To have no remorse – I don’t know how you call yourself human after that.”

Perhaps TikTok is responsible for this inhumanity, perhaps it is true that the quest for “likes” leads to what the judge describes as being “self-obsessed with a wholly unjustified sense of entitlement” and becoming a cold-blooded killer. But this documentary doesn’t make that argument convincingly, and the loss of these two young men – and the toll it has taken on their families – is underserved by the need to wage an anti-social media crusade.

• TikTok: Murder Gone Viral aired on ITV1 and is available on ITVX