On Monday, BuzzFeed News posted a new story detailing the dark underbelly of popular social networking platform TiKTok. The service, which is owned by a Chinese conglomerate called ByteDance, has become incredibly popular since its launch in 2016.
This year, the company’s monthly active user base exceeded 500 million worldwide. However, some users are claiming its lack of effective moderation has made the platform a haven for sexual predators.
Lack of Moderation
Available on iOS and Android, TiKTok allows users to record 3 to 15-second videos. As such, many of the platform’s subscribers use it to record short videos of themselves lip-syncing to popular songs. Creators can also make reply videos to other users called duets via the application. Active in more than 154 countries, the service has more than 500 million global monthly users, 26.5 million of whom are in the United States.
TiKTok’s core demographic is girls and women, ages 13 to 24. Unfortunately, its younger-skewing user base has attracted the attention of pedophiles. BuzzFeed News detailed multiple accounts of older users sending sexually explicit messages, videos, and duets to underage creators. Furthermore, India briefly banned the app in April because the nation’s high court found it enabled sexual predators.
Last year, a 14-year-old TikTok user identified as @cherrypopcosplays accused popular creator Buddy Haynes, now 27, of sending her sexually aggressive messages. After @cherrypopcosplays publicized Haynes’ alleged misbehavior, he first claimed he was hacked.
Nevertheless, the Federal Bureau of Investigation intervened and advised the creator to leave the platform.
Haynes admitted to BuzzFeed he sent @cherrypopcosplays nonsexual messages while being intoxicated. Since then, TikTok has banned him from the platform. However, the service only did so after Haynes voluntarily closed his account and the company never contacted him about his alleged abuse.
Some TikTok creators who spoke to BuzzFeed say the platform has a severe content moderation problem. Like Facebook and Twitter, the service allows users to report inappropriate content. But some subscribers say TikTok ignores the reports of creators exhibiting predatory behavior.
Furthermore, when creators posted clips warning vulnerable users about alleged predators, their videos were taken down. Feeling helpless, TikTok’s users have begun using digital vigilante tactics to deal with the platform’s sexual predator problem.
The Problems of Digital Vigilante Justice
In April, Sebastian Kretzmann, 25, accused TikTok star Caleb Zuchowski, 19, of sending nude photographs of a 15-year-old girl to young fans. Kretzmann posted a video to YouTube that included screenshots that supposedly documented Zuchowski’s misdeeds. Subsequently, other creators posted videos containing chat logs purporting to show Zuchowski requesting explicit photos from one of his 400,000 fans.
Accusations of the famous creator’s alleged pedophilic behavior also spread to Twitter.
However, Zuchowski used that platform to defend his reputation. The social media celebrity told BuzzFeed the chat log featured jokes users took out of context. He also claimed the photo he sent was of an 18-year-old who wasn’t nude. He also denied sending inappropriate messages to underage fans.
Despite the host of accusations against him, Zuchowski’s TikTok account is still active.
In June, Kretzmann became the subject of a TikTok controversy. Kaytlyn Stewart posted a video alleging Kretzmann of sexually harassing underage users. In particular, the famous creator allegedly made sexually explicit remarks to a 15-year-old boy. After Stewart’s clip was posted to YouTube on June 17, several other users made similar claims about Kretzmann on the video sharing platform.
Like Zuchowski, Kretzmann took to social media to defend himself. He said his sexually charged comments to a 15-year-old were jokes people took out of context. He also denied asking any of his 330,000 fans for illicit photos. However, he apologized for making the boy feel uncomfortable and for letting down his fans. After his apology video became a comedy meme on TikTok, Kretzmann deleted his account.
Kids Shouldn’t be on Tiktok
BuzzFeed News’ TikTok report has made a few things abundantly clear. For one, Chinese social media companies aren’t any better at moderating their content than their American counterparts. Neither underpaid human reviewers nor filtering algorithms can adequately police a platform used by hundreds of millions of people.
So, until social media services develop new artificial intelligence tools to screen their content, adult users should engage with social media at their peril.
The site’s report also makes it plain that children shouldn’t be using TikTok. Admittedly, parents can only do so much to keep their kids from engaging in the latest digital platform.
Furthermore, the rise of social media has become one of the most widely popular trends in modern history. That said, BuzzFeed’s story makes a solid argument that the structure of some social networks makes them ideal hunting grounds for sexual predators.
The publication explained that TikTok launched a “restricted mode” for its 13-year-old users. The platform prohibits creators under 13 from accessing the service beyond that mode and employs artificial intelligence tools to keep adults out.
However, the report also notes that a South Carolina internet safety consultant discovered an adult interacting with middle schoolers on the service under a false identity.
In February, TikTok owner Bytedance paid a $5.7 million Federal Trade Commission fine for collecting data on its underage users. Since the service can track its most vulnerable creators but not protect them, its continued operation in the United States is confounding. As opposed to schools or theme parks, the social network serves no redeeming value other than generating money for its owners.