The video is short and sweet. It begins with a shot of the sidewalk in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District—in the middle of the frame sits a small grayish bug, and at the bottom rests a pair of pedicured feet wearing colorful sandals. Several things happen at once: The music (a mash-up of “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and a songified audio from the latest season of Stranger Things) hits its punchline; a news headline flashes on the screen; the camera zooms in shakily; and the bug narrowly escapes as one of the feet attempts to stomp it.
The bug in question is the spotted lanternfly, a planthopper insect that is considered an invasive species in America and has been making headlines for the last year. Spotted lanternflies were first detected in Pennsylvania in 2014 and pose a serious threat to vineyards. Part of the problem is that the bug isn’t a picky eater: It can survive on over 100 different host plants found in backyards, parks, and agricultural fields, where it excretes honeydew that can damage the forest floor and apparently tastes like dried fruit and condensed milk. Lanternflies are poor fliers but resourceful hitchhikers, and they have stowed away between states on shipments and aboard vehicles.
The spotted lanternfly has become a major threat to the national economy, prompting official calls for people to do their part by checking their clothing, reporting infestations, and destroying the insects. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends crushing nymphs and adult bugs, and scraping egg masses into plastic bags and killing them with hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol. “There’s a new insect in Central Park, but we’re not fans of its work” begins another call to action posted by the official account of the Central Park Conservancy.
Social media users have filmed their own earnest PSAs and shitposted irreverent memes about the bug online this summer, and this messaging seems to have struck a chord with young communities: The hashtag “lanternfly” has been viewed 9.3 million times on TikTok. Young people are taking up arms (or more accurately, shoes) against the spotted lanternfly in what has become one of the stranger rallying points for Extremely Online youth in 2022.
“This bug just keeps being so weird, and then it gets people to react so weirdly,” Julie Urban, an evolutionary biologist at Pennsylvania State University who studies planthoppers, told The Daily Beast. “We shouldn’t be surprised when something new happens, like that suddenly this is where younger people pick up their civic responsibility, with their shoe on these insects, but I am surprised. I keep being surprised.”
For better or worse, the bug has invaded the cultural consciousness. It means young people are engaging in citizen science at a level seldom seen and in ways that could inform future grassroots campaigns.
But as with most viral phenomena, the spotted lanternfly has also reached adult corners of the internet—yes, we mean the sexual ones. A fetish subculture has sprung up around lanternfly media, and this unintended audience is happy to pay creators to keep the videos coming.
A Movement Is Born
Zoe Ervolino started seeing headlines about the spotted lanternfly a year ago but hadn’t sighted one in Brooklyn until recently. Ervolino, a recent college graduate who uses the handle @latinfluencer on TikTok, told The Daily Beast that spotted lanternflies have become a “clusterfuck of culture” on the internet.
“It’s a nightmare,” she said. “I’ve seen them fly into people on the street.” Crushing them, she added, “does feel like this weird way of showing your civic duty.”
A video she posted to the social media platform of her stepping on a lanternfly was viewed over 70,000 times. Most of the comments were positive (“cool girls kill and report spotted lantern flies” reads one) but a couple questioned why she and others were on the prowl to literally stamp out the bugs, prompting Ervolino to self-reflect.
“Why am I suddenly a mercenary for this bug? They told me to do it, and now I’m like, ‘wuh-cha’ everytime I see it,’” she said, making the sound of a karate chop.
To be clear, the U.S. is not relying exclusively on the power of tweens, teens, and 20-somethings for pest management. “People with their tennis shoes aren’t going to take down the whole population,” Urban said. Appeals to squish the bug, she said, are intended to minimize people’s risk of unknowingly transporting lanternflies or their eggs to regions where they haven’t yet been introduced.
“This bug just keeps being so weird, and then it gets people to react so weirdly.”
— Julie Urban, Pennsylvania State University
At the same time, Urban and other scientists are working with farmers and government agencies to devise solutions to eliminate ongoing infestations and prevent future ones. Some groups are studying species of tiny parasitic wasps that attack and kill spotted lanternfly eggs and nymphs, while others are experimenting with barrier walls and insecticide-treated netting to surround vineyards.
Even so, researchers haven’t discovered a silver bullet, so grassroots advocacy and individual efforts provide a critical service right now. “We need this public awareness, we need to stomp on them, we need all these things to buy time for the research to happen,” said Urban.
Why has this call to action been so successful with young users? Sussy, a 25-year-old from New Jersey who uses the handle @sexysustainability online, told The Daily Beast that they felt their generation and younger ones have amassed an unparalleled collective anger in recent years. Squishing the bugs provides instant gratification and a way to release some of their pent-up emotions.
“When I was first stomping them out, I was like, ‘Fuck COVID, and fuck this and fuck that,’ all pointed toward this bug, which has really nothing to do with it,” Sussy said.
Young people are also trying to make sense of the relationship they want to have with nature, one that balances a desire to protect the environment with the reality of the damage already done to it, Ervolino said. In a strange way, banding together to trample spotted lanternflies says something about how Gen Z and millennials think about a participatory democracy.
“We want to have this optimism about our participation in electoral processes, and the lanternfly is a way we’re participating in this cultural citizenship,” Ervolino said, adding, “It would be cool if we could vote in the same way that we all comment on a lanternfly video.”
Working Out the Kinks
Once empowered to support a cause, digital natives know various formulae for internet virality. At least one of them is as old as marketing itself: sex sells.
Sussy’s video leads with them “stomping” on the camera while wearing sneakers, but they edited in a split second of their bare foot. It’s a trick they learned from creating foot fetish content on OnlyFans and Youtube, and a ploy to attract views and engagement.
“The point of it is that everybody wants a free feet pic, but you have to keep watching it over and over again to pause it at the right time,” Sussy said. “At least they’ll learn something as they’re trying to do that.”
“I knew it was probably a weird fetish thing, but it did feel a little bit mutually beneficial considering they are an invasive species.”
Surprisingly, though, foot fetishists are not the main people who seem to be obsessively watching content creators smush spotted lanternflies for X-rated purposes. Individuals with crush fetishes are paying female users to film themselves stomping on the bugs. Don’t know what a crush fetish is? Let Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts define it for you:
“Crush videos often depict women slowly crushing animals to death ‘with their bare feet or while wearing high heeled shoes,’ sometimes while ‘talking to the animals in a kind of dominatrix patter,’” Roberts wrote in a 2010 Supreme Court ruling on the matter, quoting a congressional report. “Apparently these depictions ‘appeal to persons with a very specific sexual fetish who find them sexually arousing or otherwise exciting.’”
Ali, a tax consultant based in New Jersey, posted a video of herself on TikTok stepping on a spotted lanternfly last fall. Afterward, she said that a user asked in a comment if she wanted to make money from stepping on lanternflies.
“I knew it was probably a weird fetish thing, but it did feel a little bit mutually beneficial considering they are an invasive species,” the 24-year-old told The Daily Beast.
The user agreed to pay her $20 via Cash App for 10 videos. Over the following weeks, she uploaded the videos to a shared Google Drive, where the buyer provided helpful feedback on Ali’s technique and cinematography. She had initially assumed that the user was soliciting content because of a foot fetish, but they told her to wear Vans or Converse instead of the sandals she had worn in her first few videos. Ali said that she has made $50 from this user, who requires that she steps on adult lanternflies, not any other kind of bug.
“He is very adamant about stomp, twist,” she said. “He also really likes if I talk a little shit to the bug. If I’m like, ‘I’m gonna kill you, I’m gonna stomp on you, and you’re gonna die,’ he really likes that.”
Ali has also received a second, unrelated message about filming lanternfly crushing content, which she took to mean there’s an entire subculture for these kinds of videos. Indeed, accounts with names like @stomplanterns4cash can be found on various social media platforms, as well as users who direct viewers to message them for videos of spotted lanternflies being crushed.
“In my heart of hearts, I really would love to believe that [crush fetishists] are changing the world by doing this, but I guess it depends on how many women they’re contacting,” Ali said. “I mean, maybe they have more power than we know.”
Ali is moving to Pennsylvania next summer, where the insect first took root and has caused some of the worst infestations. She’s recently gotten back in touch with the original buyer who first messaged her on TikTok, and she hopes to continue selling videos to them in the future. “I’m really hoping that he’s still around because I could probably pay a little bit of my rent with that money,” she said.
“I should have recorded that. That’s $5 right there.”
Whenever she steps on one now, she feels a bit of remorse—but not for the bug. “I get a little upset because I’m like, ‘I should have recorded that. That’s $5 right there.’”
This Is Our Future Now
Odd bedfellows included, it’s been exciting to see communities on the internet band together against a common enemy, Sussy said. On the surface, squishing lanternflies seems like a bipartisan issue that should unite most people (though some in the media have still managed to engage in bothsidesism anyway). It has been easy to brush off trolls who suggest leaving the bugs be, they said.
But Urban can relate to the experience of having mixed feelings about killing spotted lanternflies. Having studied the insects for over a decade—including research trips to the tropics to find spotted lanternflies in the wild—she said that she could hardly believe it when they showed up in her backyard.
“Fulgorids in your yard? You would think you died and went to heaven if that happened,” a colleague told her, using the scientific family name for the bugs.
Urban said that personally, she found the co-opting of spotted lanternfly stomping for crush content to be upsetting (“You don’t necessarily want to encourage that,” she said). And if the idea of stomping on a lanternfly seems unsavory, she suggested scooping up lanternflies in a cup and putting them in the freezer, where they will quickly die.
“I respect the animal, but my role is to try to help knock it down,” she said.
Regardless where you stand, if you’re not seeing lanternfly content on your social media feeds yet, chances are you will soon. The bugs cannot be eradicated at this point, Urban said. She predicted that posts and videos will continue to grow in popularity throughout the next two months, which is when the bugs become more active and fatten up before mating.
“So you think it’s going viral now?” said Urban. “Wait ‘til September.”