New things are often met with scepticism. Fun fact: even the telephone was at one point considered dangerous. So it isn't exactly unexpected — or dare we say even out of the ordinary — that the increasingly popular social media platform Tiktok has stirred up some really intense topics. But what's curious about this app is that, unlike Vine, Snapchat, and its other video-driven social networking predecessors, Tiktok has been rife with controversies and has drawn the ire of parents and politicians alike — all in just a few years into its creation and mere months after it reached heightened popularity.
Is this app really as "shady" as some critics make it out to be? Let's take a look at some of the biggest controversies Tiktok has faced in the past three years.
Dangerous Tiktok challenges
Tiktok is the new place to get internet famous. "It's a fresh start," said a Tiktok user we spoke to who declined to be named. "It was getting harder and harder to build clout on Instagram, but on Tiktok it's still not as saturated." Unfortunately, the quest for fame knows no limits. Internet challenges are, of course, nothing new, but the ones found on Tiktok are concerning, to say the least, considering that the majority of its users are young. The Penny and Outlet Challenge, for one, involves a mobile phone charger that is partially plugged into a socket and a penny that is inserted between the charger and the outlet to create a spark. Many have pointed out that not only is this dangerous, but it is also bordering on attempted arson.
Another challenge that has also been raising eyebrows is the Cereal Challenge, which sees one pouring and eating cereal and milk out of another's mouth.
Is it shockingly gross? We think so. More than that, it is also a choking risk. One wrong move and that cereal might just go down the wrong pipe. Yet, this "challenge" is so popular that even YouTube star Bretman Rock participated in it. Yikes!
Some challenges have even resulted in hospitalisation. More of a prank than a challenge, the grimly named Skull-Breaker Challenge has caused several injuries among teens around the world. Fortunately, the hashtag page is now populated with warnings against this challenge.
While Tiktok is not responsible for creating these challenges, it is becoming an avenue for these dangerous activities to go viral. Like any other social media platform, a strong monitoring and moderation system is essential to make sure that videos encouraging such dangerous behaviour do not get their day in the sun — something that Tiktok may be more than capable of, considering that they have allegedly been actively censoring political content and monitoring data.
Tiktok's data harvesting and censorship allegations
In case you missed it, the latest topic right now involving Tiktok is its ban in India, along with 59 other China-based apps — which means it stands to lose about 200 million users. Why? The official statement from the Indian government is that Tiktok is, as reported by the BBC, "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order". And India isn't the first country to raise suspicions.
As early as September 2019, Tiktok came under security review in the United States after an article by The Guardian reported leaked information that revealed Tiktok instructing its moderation team to censor topics that are sensitive to the Communist Party of China, including Tibet's Independence, Falun Gong and the Tiananmen Square. This led politicians like Senator Marco Rubio to call for a thorough review of the app and its acquisition of Musical.ly.
Tiktok was quick to respond in a statement, making it "very clear" that they "have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked". Still, many are questioning why certain searches like the Hong Kong protests aren't being seen on the app and why activist Feroza Aziz faced banning after making a viral video about the situation of Uyghur Muslims. When probed, Tiktok said that the activist got banned because of "human moderation error" and swiftly unbanned her.
Censorship on the app is one thing, but data harvesting allegations is another. So far, Tiktok has been fined by the United States FTC for collecting children's information. More recently, it was accused of transferring user data to servers in China and got involved in a controversy surrounding an iOS update that revealed Tiktok accessing clipboard content. Why is this a concern? Well, the documentary The Great Hack sums it all up: data is the most valuable asset and can be used to heavily influence mindsets and major political events, such as elections.
As of now, some have already pointed out the rampant propagandas that are infiltrating the app and Douyin, its Chinese counterpart.
A live-streamed suicide that went on for an hour
Another moderation slip-up from Tiktok happened about a year ago when a teenager in Brazil live-streamed his suicide*. The stream went on live for more than an hour broadcasting the stiff body while comments and reports continued to accumulate on the app, according to The Intercept. They also alleged that what's worrying is that Tiktok did not call the police right away but instead called their PR team first.
Tiktok also did not release any statement at the time. It was not until a former employee of ByteDance's (Tiktok's mother company) Brazil office came forward with the evidence and information that the story surfaced a year later.
Are you practising prudence online?
In all fairness, Tiktok is not the first social media platform that has encountered issues about data privacy and moderation flaws. There are many factors why the young app is garnering so many controversies in its short history. Heightened sensitivity and increased vigilance due to previous scandals such as Facebook's Cambridge Analytica issue could be some of these contributing factors — and that is a good thing. As we become more aware of how our online data are being collected and used, we demand more transparency and better security conditions. Prudence is key, which begs the question: are you practising prudence online?
*If you are or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call these suicide hotlines: 1800-221 4444 (Singapore), +2 804-HOPE (4673) (Philippines) or 603-79571306 (Malaysia).
Next, learn how you can safely disinfect your gadgets.
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