is a writer based in London for RT, in charge of several projects including the political satire group #ICYMI. Follow him on Twitter @SiWrites
When fame-hungry youngsters are given a social media platform and no rules, it’s a dangerous combination. However, TikTok moderators are reportedly more concerned about ‘ugly’ users than potentially deadly stunts.
TikTok is a bewildering place for anyone over the age of 16 – even before you get to the videos of people licking toilets, jumping out of moving cars, and having their heads smashed on the floor.
For the uninitiated and confused, TikTok is a Chinese-run social media app made up of what appears to be people acting like idiots to music. Hardly anyone seems to be able to explain exactly why teens, tweens and toddlers are so mesmerised by footage of their peers slapping themselves around the face in time to Adele’s latest hit, but they are.
Of course, when a platform is a massive success among kids, the fame-hungry and the soft-brained, then it’s inevitable that if the platform doesn’t have strong levels of moderation it will descend into a ‘Lord of the Flies’-style scenario before very long, and that’s what has happened, very possibly with the owners’ consent.
For example, every now and again a so-called challenge goes viral on TikTok. The current one the world is having to deal with is the ‘coronavirus challenge’. The high point of this so far is a video of a 21-year-old ‘influencer’ licking a toilet seat on a plane. It’s not clear whether she is trying to catch Covid-19, or showing that she can’t catch it, but ultimately it doesn’t matter because she has gone, erm, viral. Millions of people watched the sick stunt, which has presumably led to her receiving a decent paycheck. Needless to say, this is not a great example to set, although amazingly (gag factor aside) there have been far more dangerous stunts before this.
Like the ‘Kiki challenge’, also known as the ‘In My Feelings challenge’, which saw participants jumping out of a moving car and dancing alongside it to the Drake song ‘In My Feelings’ while the car continued to move. Police around the world were forced to send warnings that this was a particularly dangerous challenge due to the risk of crashing into lamp posts or running people over.
Then there was the ‘skull-breaker challenge’ (yep, really), in which kids trick their mates into jumping in the air so they can kick their legs out and cause them to break their skull as they crash to the floor. Hilarious.
In some ways, the rise of truly stupid viral social media stunts can be traced back to the tide pod challenge, which wasn’t specifically a TikTok-based thing, but it fits the pattern. It saw kids swallowing laundry detergent pods, and the risk of choking or poisoning became so worrisome that it forced Google and Facebook to start removing videos.
So as we speak, TikTok is the Wild West; there seems no real effort to keep things under some sort of basic control. In fact, reports suggest that the platform is choosing that well-known recipe for success known as seeking the lowest common denominator. The Intercept reports that while moderators will let potentially dangerous stunts make the cut, they have been instructed to suppress posts created “by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform.” That doesn’t sound like the corporate policy of a company overly concerned about kids breaking their skulls, does it?
The Intercept also suggests that TikTok sees itself as a centre of anything-goes creativity and self-expression, although that tends to be the kind of creativity which is low on political dissent but high in licking toilet seats.
So in a nutshell, risk lives, health and dignity to go big on TikTok, but whatever you do, don’t be ugly. This could be a bigger danger to the future of humanity than the coronavirus!