Yes, TikTok seems like the next big thing, the next major social media platform moving into the mainstream, and yes, there definitely, on the surface, seems like a lot of marketing opportunity in the short video platform, particularly in regards to connecting with younger audiences.
But questions still remain around the platform's various content moderation and policy approaches, with two new issues arising this week which point to concerns within the app's process.
First, documentation acquired by Netzpolitik shows that TikTok actively limited the reach of content that had been uploaded by users who appeared to have disabilities, as part of a misguided effort to reduce cyberbullying in the app.
The documentation advised TikTok moderators to flag content from users who appeared to have autism, Down's syndrome or facial disfigurements, and their uploads were then distributed to smaller audience subsets. The intention of the policy was to protect users who were deemed to be "susceptible to harassment or cyberbullying based on their physical or mental condition".
TikTok has confirmed that such a directive was in place at one stage, and was implemented in response to an increase in bullying activity within the app, but the policy has since been abolished. Netzpolitik also says that the same reach limits were also applied to videos from users who appeared to be "self-confident and overweight, or homosexual", and that the policy was in place until September this year.
The content directive reportedly came from TikTok's bosses in China, which once again raises questions around how the app will be able to function while working to stay within more restrictive Chinese content regulations. Various queries have been raised around TikTok's moderation policies, and what it's compelled to do by Chinese officials. Just recently, a 17 year-old TikTok user had her account suspended after posting videos condemning China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims.
In almost all cases, TikTok has dismissed claims of censorship as either a misunderstanding or miscommunication, but the examples continue to add up. If, as TikTok has repeatedly claimed, its US-based arm is independent, and not governed by more restrictive Chinese rules, then it'll need to solidify its documentation, and ensure that it is, in fact, allowing such posts to stay up on its site.
In addition to this, TikTok has also been forced to update its rules around 'virtual gifting' in live-streams.
As per TikTok:
"While we will continue to have a 16+ age limit for a user to host a live-stream, our updated policy will only allow those aged 18 and over to purchase, send, or receive virtual gifts. Before today, anyone older than 13 was allowed to send virtual gifts, and anyone over 16 could receive them."
Of course, all platforms have moderation and censorship issues to deal with, and there are bound to be concerns that come up as new apps grow and refine their systems. But each case adds a little more the pushback against TikTok, which is already subject to a national security investigation in the US.
And as the US-China trade war continues, TikTok is likely to remain in keen focus. That's not to say you shouldn't look to use the app, nor that its parent company ByteDance can't be trusted. But it is worth taking note of such concerns as you consider your potential usage of the tool.
And that's before we get into the gray areas around its usage stats. TikTok remains high on every app download chart, even coming in fourth on the 'Top Free Apps' listing for 2019 published by the iTunes store this week.
But given that most other social apps already have billions of users, you would kind of expect TikTok to see higher download rates - what's more relevant is how many active users TikTok has, which the company hasn't reported since last year. Given its massive rise in popularity, you would think it would be keen to tout its success on this front - but the lack of transparency here suggests that, maybe, while people are downloading the app, they're not coming back to it regularly. In that case, it would be in ByteDance's revenue interests to let the download numbers communicate its success - when the real usage stats, potentially, could reduce advertiser interest.
Again, none of this is definitive - TikTok continues to make its case on each front, and continues to combat the negative reports. And it may well be all fine - maybe TikTok is independent, its policy issues are being corrected and its active usage rates are actually solid.
But serious questions remain, based, in many cases, on in-depth study and research into the platform's approach.
Before we're sold on the app's true potential, a few more of these issues need to be adressed fully.