I was recently discussing with a friend if it was appropriate to applaud YouTube for its recent efforts. They have recently taken actions to disrupt agents of radicalization from using their platform.
I think that they are really doing too little, too late. They have a long way to go before they have atoned for their dismantling of our collective wellbeing.
My friend thought that we should applaud their efforts but continue to hold their feet to the fire. They must behave like a responsible member of the fourth estate. In the course of this discussion, our attention turned to Tik Tok.
In full disclosure, both my friend and I are around our early forties and neither of us knew much about Tik Tok. I like to think that I am in my Public Relations prime, and not an old-timer. However, I had written it off as something the kids are doing.
I maintain my intellectual curiosity even if it does take an extra cup of coffee to get going at this age. So with a spirit of curiosity, I decided to find out what this medium is about. Maybe it could be of use to me or my clients. Very shortly into this, I became scared. Very scared.
Tik Tok began in 2017 by the Beijing based company ByteDance. According to US News and World Report, it is currently valued at $78 billion. The app boasts 500 million active monthly users of which 90 percent access it at least once a day. The average user spends more than 50 minutes on Tik Tok per day. The number that piqued my interest was only 4 percent of marketers are currently doing business on the app.
Like any good Public Relations professional, I decided to create an account to see what this was about.
I created an account and got to pick the topics I’d like to see. I chose art, and gaming both pretty innocuous topics. The first, very first video shown to me on the “for you” section was hate speech. I don’t mean this could possibly insult someone. Nope, the first video Tik Tok chooses to show me is full-on antisemitic hate speech and borderline incitement to violence. So I reported it.
I can say that the Tik Tok reviewers are very quick to respond. In about twenty minutes they responded that they would do nothing. To Tik Tok this was acceptable and my first introduction to their platform.
You would think that when someone reports content that the algorithm would assume not to show more of that content, right? Nope, the second video was a woman espousing belief in the benefits of selling women out to sex trafficking. Now, I’m wondering if I’m being punked.
I am currently researching misinformation and disinformation campaigns and how to combat them. My hope is to write an academic white paper to publish later down the line. As a result, I’ve seen some awful stuff in my research. Is it pulling from my research browser history? No, I do that from my work computer and this is on my phone. Clear my browser history. Maybe that will help.
OK, the third video is about Fortnite, this is more what I expected to see. What’s next? OMG! Did that guy just get hit in the head with a baseball bat in an assault? Report that that’s obviously criminal. That has to be against their content rule.
The response….. apparently nope. I reported well over twenty videos in the half-hour I subjected myself to this app.
By the end of that half-hour, I seriously needed to Lysol my brain. In my research on misinformation and disinformation campaigns, I’ve seen some bad stuff. However, this was a half-hour of some of the worst people humanity has created. I’m not talking about just the political content either, of which there was way more than a fair share. I’m talking about all the forms of criminal, sexist, and racist behavior the internet could muster.
I wish it was just distasteful. The app kept feeding hate to me for a half-hour straight with the occasional call back to Fortnite. By the time I’m done I’m doubting the value of trying to save humanity. I need to go to the mountains, become a monk, and disavow all technology. The Independence Day aliens did nothing wrong.
In my not at all scientific research on Tik Tok, did I come to a conclusion? Is Tik Tok an instrument of radicalization?
Approximately 40 percent of the app users are under 24 and the app has stated that it was designed to appeal to people under 18. The app does not curate content and due to the content, it is not legal in China. However, it is still based in Beijing. If it is not intended to radicalize and divide us then it has become the home for some of the worst humanity can offer up.
The app sucked me in for a half-hour and in the end, I needed a shower and possibly a psychiatrist for putting myself through that.
I can say without a doubt that I am not going to market with Tik Tok even if my clients want to. There is way too much reputation cost associated with this platform. I love video and the potential for short-form video for marketing PR but as the old farmer’s adage goes, “If you wallow with pigs, expect to get dirty.”