The Dark Side of Tik-Tok

“TikTok App Icon On a Mobile Phone” / Solen Feyissa / / CC BY-SA 2.0

Brigham Larson, Reporter

Over the past three years, TikTok has steadily grown from a relatively unknown Chinese video-sharing app to an international phenomenon, sporting over 689 million active monthly users as of February 2021. All types of content appear on the service, from trap remixes of Disney songs to deeply personal videos addressing topics that previous generations barely even acknowledged. To top it all off, it’s packaged into a highly attractive social media platform that allows teens to keep up with their friends and favorite users.

But tucked out of sight from the silly dances and short comedy videos, a darker side to this popular app exists. The app has had significant issues with discriminatory moderation practices, possible breach of privacy, and hateful, dangerous, or dishonest content. Yet despite these controversies, the app still remains endlessly popular.

On March 15, 2020, the news website The Intercept published a series of documents from within TikTok’s content moderation department, revealing rules designed to suppress content from users deemed “ugly” by moderators. The criteria for being considered as such includes “Abnormal body shape, chubby, have obvious beer belly, obese, or too thin (not limited to: dwarf, acromegaly) […] Ugly facial looks (not limited to: disformatted face, fangs, lack of front teeth, senior people with too many wrinkles, obvious facial scars) or facial deformities (not limited to: eye disorders, crooked mouth disease and other disabilities).”

As many in the media have pointed out, these rules deem disables users or those who naturally have different bodies as “ugly” and therefore unsuitable for their platform. An additional set of rules also excludes people who live in low-income families, by stating that moderators should suppress content where “The shooting environment is shabby and dilapidated, such as, not limited to: slums, rural fields, […] dilapidated housing, construction sites, etc.,” with the reasoning being that “This kind of environment is not that suitable for new users for being less fancy and appealing.”

Body-shaming does not just happen behind the scenes at TikTok, however. Despite rules that restrict such content, videos continue to appear on the app that contain unrealistic portrayals of body image, such as “thinspo,” short for “thin inspiration,” and body-shaming. NBC News interviewed a young woman named Kayla Christine, who was admitted to a treatment center after being diagnosed with an eating disorder. Just months earlier, she had posted a video on TikTok discussing how the only thing she consumed on New Year’s Eve was a jug of ice water. Seven other women testified to the news source that videos on the platform had encouraged them to adopt unhealthy eating and dieting practices. Pro-anorexia or similar content is explicitly banned on the app, however, these types of videos continue to pop up on the service.

In the last year, misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic has spread like wildfire, largely through social media. Much of this spread has been on platforms with generally older users such as Facebook, but even TikTok isn’t immune to the spreading of these lies. NBC News reported that one video, in which a user reads a popular anti-vaccine meme claiming that scientists released the vaccine suspiciously quickly compared to vaccines for other diseases, went viral on the site, being remixed into over 4,500 other videos via the app’s audio feature. Multiple other videos received similar treatment, featuring widely debunked information about masks or vaccinations. These remixes, while some are ironic, still contribute to the spread of misinformation, which could dissuade users from getting the vaccine or masking.

The popular app’s darker underbelly has been well-documented for some time now. With the Trump Administration’s 2020 executive order that could have banned the app and the Biden Administration’s subsequent undoing of the order, this side to the app has been increasingly visible.