What can we learn from TikTok Statements of Reasons?
Body shaming, hypersexualisation, the spread of fake news and misinformation, and the glorification of violence are a high risk on any kind of Social Network. TikTok is one of the fastest growing between 2020 and 2023 and has million of content uploaded everyday on its platform.
A quick look at some of the most recent statistics reveals that:
- 53% of people aged 3-17 in the UK use TikTok. This is more than Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook.
- The new Digital Services Act protects TikTok users in the EU but not in the UK. This leaves UK users more vulnerable to harmful content.
- 98,398,296 Statements of Reason (SOR) have been issued on TikTok in 2023. This is more than 2.5 times higher than Facebook.
- 40,918,674 SORs related to illegal or harmful speech, and 1,592,709 for sexual content.
- Fewer than 3% of TikTok videos feature weight-inclusive messaging or content.
- It takes TikTok only 2.6 minutes to recommend suicide content and 8 minutes for content related to eating disorders.
Looking at these statistics, we can see that TikTok’s Trust and Safety team has to safe major challenges to keep its content safe. Especially when it comes with younger generation.
With the newly implemented Digital Services Act (DSA)—the EU Act that fosters safer online environments—TikTok, along with a host of other internet giants like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and X, have to follow new guiding rules on content moderation, user privacy, and transparency.
Under the DSA, platforms like TikTok must ensure they have ways and means of preventing and removing posts containing illegal goods, services, or content. At the same time, they must offer users a way of reporting this content and ensure that whoever has their content moderated is informed of why decisions have been made and their content removed.
When a decision is made regarding content, Statements of Reason (SOR) are issued to users. These SORs fullfil the criteria of the DSA as they inform the user why specific content moderation decisions were made and the reasons behind those decisions. The number of SORs issued paints a clear picture of the content moderation challenges faced by its in house Trust & Safety team.
Here’s how TikTok’s Statements of Reason stats stack up.
A closer look at some Statements of Reasons (SoR)
Looking at the DSA Statements of Reason Transparency report for TikTok, illegal or harmful speech has the highest number of SORs after Scope of Platform Service, the reason cited when content is “incompatible” with the platform.
Illegal or harmful speech can be discriminatory (biased, bigoted, or intolerant) or pejorative (prejudiced, contemptuous, or demeaning). It can range from fat shaming to racism, hate speech, and inciting violence against a specific demographic. 40.9 million illegal or harmful speech SORs, which accounted for 41.58%, were issued between 25 September and 20 November 2023.
Violence came next with 7.4 million SORs, protection of minors followed at 2,2 million, and self-harm a little further down the list with 518,9000. Animal welfare had 59,808 SORs, coming in at 0.06%, while non-consensual behaviour racked up just 2,000 SORs.
While the minimum age for a TikTok user is 13, Bytedance, the Chinese company that owns the app, doesn’t enforce any age verification when signing up. The ICO has fined TikTok Information Technologies UK Limited and TikTok Inc (TikTok) £12.7 million for misusing children’s data, but this issue is ongoing. A recent Ofcom report shows that users as young as three years old are online in the UK. Therefore new guidelines are now being changed by its Trust and Safety team to ensure a high level of protection.
A Focus On Self-Loathing & Suicide on Social Media Platforms
Two of the biggest challenges looking at social media platforms are body shaming and the encouragement of self-harm. In the Centre for Countering Digital Hate’s (CCDH) Deadly by Design report, it was evidenced that some social media allowed content that included self-harm videos and those focusing on eating disorders.
The CCDH study discovered that newly opened accounts that simply liked videos about mental health and body image soon attracted harmful recommendations. In fact, so soon that it only took 2.6 minutes to recommend suicide content and less than eight minutes for content related to eating disorders. Furthermore, every 39 seconds, platforms recommended videos about mental health and body image – the majority of which were negative.
The romanticism of self-harm and suicide is a huge issue, and in 2022, a groundbreaking court ruling on the death of schoolgirl Molly Russell attributed her cause of death to “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”
The constant stream of self-harm-related content on social media is hugely damaging to younger generations, who perhaps don’t have support systems to cope with what they see, and for older users who may suffer from depression or other mental health struggles. In such, we’ve been seeing that this issue has become a priority in new policy changes on Tiktok’s platform.
A Culture Of Violence on Social Media Platforms
While eating disorders and suicide are major issues, encouraging violence is another huge problem on the platform.
A recent study by the University of Portsmouth examined the incel subculture on social media platforms, as this group has shown a surge in misogynistic and anti-feminist content and encourages violence against a woman. The study revealed that social media platforms was home to a large number of incels who were recruiting others while spreading hate, victim blaming, denying the importance of consent, and justifying violence against women. This group was staying under the radar by using language that escaped content moderation yet was obvious enough to cause harm and perpetuate hate.
In 2022, the Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center said that incels were becoming a rising threat in the US. MI5 also warned the UK Intelligence and Security Committee that incels were establishing synergistic relationships with other conspiratorial and violent movements.
Incels are clearly a growing problem, but it’s not just this group that promotes violence. Extremists, neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, anti-LGBTQ+, and xenophobic groups or users have all found a voice on TikTok, with many of them spreading their violent messages successfully before being flagged for violations.
TikTok had to face some challenges with the kickboxer-turned-influencer Andrew Tate. Influencers generally focus on promoting products and have created a lucrative social media marketing market that’s expected to be worth $143 billion by 2030. In contrast, Tate focused more on pushing his personal brand and trying to exert a negative influence that encouraged anti-social behaviour. This included sharing misogynistic views, making controversial and often violent or aggrssive statements, and flaunting his ultra-masculine, luxurious lifestyle.
Even if TikTok hosted its videos, its Trust and Safety team made sure they were all remove to avoid any spread of hate speech and violence.
An Adult Problem on Social Media Platforms
Because of sexualised dance challenges overly sexual or pornographic content, TikTok has issued 33,766,210 SORs in 2023 alone. This accounts for 6.44% of all SORs, and it actually seems to be on the lower side, especially when compared to Instagram’s 9.15% SOR rating.
Tiktok is being careful with these contents since dance challenges, in particular, lend themselves to sexualization, with the viral Bollywood dance routine to the song “O Saki Saki” from the film “Batla House” cited as a prime example. Not only did the trend appropriate South Asian culture, but it also sexualized and fetishized it.
A Question Of Public Safety
In 2018, Facebook faced yet another scandal when it was accused of using user data to micro-target those easily influenced politically. Dubbed the “Cambridge Analytica Scandal,” it changed the social media landscape for the better. However, what it didn’t stop was the spread of misinformation about politics and elections.
In 2023, TikTok issued 140,570 SORs regarding the negative effects on civic discourse or elections. Although the platform banned political advertising in 2019, this hasn’t stopped users from driving their own agendas forward and spreading fake news.
In the US, the 2024 election has been dubbed “The TikTok Election” as Gen Z and millennials – the platform’s predominant user base – are expected to account for close to half of the electorate. Many left-wing candidates, including Joe Biden, have made TikTok a core part of their campaigns. But Republican presidential candidates want to ban the app due to national security concerns and the platform’s alleged role in spreading misinformation and encouraging the furthering of political divides.
Misinformation was recently made evident once again when Osama bin Laden’s 2002 “Letter to America” went viral. This sparked further discourse on the wake of deep fakes and AI. There’s also been a slew of misleading political content about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing Palestine/Israel conflict.
It’s now so easy to create fake images that appear real that in the future, we’ll likely see an increase in the issuance of election or political SORs.
Politics and elections are not the only areas where Social Media Platform are fighting against the spread of misinformation. From dangerous challenges to potentially deadly health, weight loss, and medical advice, user safety is often at risk.
Researchers at the University of Vermont found that only 14% of nutritional advice provided on the platform came from licensed professionals, and there was an abundance of misinformation about diet pills and drugs like Ozempic and DNP steroids.
With 303 SORs issued for unsafe and illegal products, the scourge of misinformation is a real concern at Tiktok, especially for those in more vulnerable groups.
A Scammers Playground
On an app where sending someone a direct message (DM) is as simple as tapping the screen, the number of reported scams and fraudulent activities or attempts was comparatively low at 999,618. Considering TikTok has over a billion active monthly users visiting the app up to 21 times a day, there’s hope that the community guidelines and the option to adjust account privacy settings to determine who can send you direct messages are playing a role in keeping these numbers down.
That said, there are still several different scams that arise on a regular basis, with phishing, bots, romance, adult content, and bogus product and service scams being the most common. Children under 14 have become one of the biggest targets for scammers, and this has led to major concerns about privacy issues.
The Perils of Privacy Violations
TikTok certainly has a long list of controversial privacy allegations levelled against it, and it seems that its users often overstep the mark, too. When this happens, the app warns users of the risks and, in some cases, removes their content.
In 2023, 404,114 data protection and privacy violation SORs were issued, and 1,081 for risk to public security. These privacy violations can cover everything from users posting personal information that could lead to the risk of phishing, fraud, stalking, identity theft, or financial loss to the sharing of suspicious links.
However, while TikTok tries to ensure user security on their platform, TikTok users in the UK now have a less safe version of the app. This is due to the platform making the personalised algorithm optional for users in the EEA to ensure it complies with the requirements of the EU’s Digital Services Act.
In addition to making Statements of Reason reports available when a violation is cited, the Act stipulates that large platforms with user bases of over 45 million must provide an option to switch off personalised recommendations due to the systematic impact they can have on facilitating the dissemination of information, opinions, and ideas, public debate, and economic transactions.
But this Act doesn’t apply in the UK, and campaigners have been vocal in their disapproval. Not having availability to the optional algorithm switch-off compromises vulnerable users, and it infringes on their rights to have the same security features.
It’s interesting to note that amidst the privacy violations and infringements, 2023 saw zero SORs issued for intellectual property infringements. This means that the app didn’t receive any notable complaints about disputes relating to copyright, trademark, or patent infringement.
The Interactive DSA Statements of Reason reports is a great tool to understand the content moderation challenges faced by large platforms such as Tiktok. Eventhough it outlines mostly harmful content present and removed from the platform, TikTok also serves as a platform to raise awareness for issues, rally people behind good causes, build support for marginalised communities, and promote equality.
Like many tech tools and platforms, improved moderation and regulation are key to limiting the negative effects and protecting users from harm. The DSA is a step in the right direction. However, every user (and parent) still needs to be aware of the potential risks to ensure social medias are safe, fun, and harm-free.