In June, a few days after the death of my oldest dog and AKC champion, I began posting to TikTok. At first I found it a frustrating plethora of tits and ass meant to meet the approval of the male gaze. Slowly, the app figured out what I would actually watch and I learned to turn it off when I was not looking and to quickly pass on things I found boring or offensive or even parasitic (re-posting someone else’s content for views). Like Facebook and Twitter and even Yahoo and Google, there’s money to be made by collecting data and this is one of the things the documentary “TikTok Boom” explores.
In “TikTok Boom,” the first shot of an eye is something I also immediately noticed. TikTok was normalizing the demon-eye look because people used circular lights and didn’t know how to bounce the light to get just white highlight dots in the eyes instead of a full white circle of light in each eye around the pupil. This demon ring of light is only slightly better than the red-eyes brought out by flash photography. For lighting cinematography or regular photos, the ring-around-the-iris look is meant to be avoided. For TikTok users ignorance is bliss.
I know something about search algorithms and data collection. When I worked at Yahoo Search Marketing, I was an editor for the pay-per-click content. The algorithm was constantly being tweaked and, at times, there were problems that ranged from silly to outright problematic and the advertisers weren’t all honest about content. My experience at Yahoo ended over a decade ago; most of the work I and my associates had done, went to India. The algorithm game has since become more aggressive and sensitive with each iteration. Conspiracy theorists worry about what the government knows about us, but maybe we should worry about what tech businesses like search engines and social media apps now know about us. The intrusiveness is not just a problem for adults; it also affects children. And TikTok is particularly popular with the younger generations.
In “TikTok Boom,” Asian Indian American director Shalini Kantayya examines TikTok first through young content creators: Spencer X and Feroza Aziz. Spencer X is of Ecuadorian and Chinese descent. He actually began on YouTube before moving on to TikTok. His thing is beat boxing. Afghani American Feroza Aziz started with showing off traditional Afghani wear. She moved on to makeup and clothes. She later crossed the Chinese government and its censorship policy by commenting about China’s treatment of the Ulghurs. After the first attempt, she tried something more devious; she interrupted her makeup tutorial to make a political statement.
- Meet Spencer X, the TikTok beatboxer who has 54 million followers and is the 8th-most-followed person on the platform (23 August 2021)
There was someone who like Aziz used social media for the greater good, sending out a warning of what would become to be known as COVID-19. That video clip was on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, but ByteDance, which was founded by Zhang Yiming, is the Chinese company that owns both TikTok and Weibo. Doctor Li Wenliang sent a warning first to his fellow doctors in a chat group and then in a 10 January 2020 Weibo post. He contracted COVID-19 on 30 January and died 7 February 2020.
China state firms invest in TikTok sibling, Weibo chat app (18 August 2021)
The suppression of information didn’t stop there because as the pandemic continued, in the US there was another issue: Black Lives Matter. TikTok reportedly became a hub for #blacklivesmatter activism, but some creators claimed their content was being suppressed.
TikTok apologizes after being accused of censoring #BlackLivesMatter posts (2 June 2020)
TikTok serves as hub for #blacklivesmatter activism (4 June 2020)
- TikTok embraces political content for Black Lives Matter (17 June 2020)
These TikTok Creators Say They’re Still Being Suppressed for Posting Black Lives Matter Content (22 July 2020)
From the renegade to Black Lives Matter: How Black creators are changing TikTok culture (30 July 2020)
TikTok said there was an algorithm problem. The documentary doesn’t examine this in detail. That could be true. Remember that once, not so long ago, BLM in the United States stood for Bureau of Land Management (or Black Latino Male). The algorithm must match not only the specific words or acronym, but usage. How would the Bureau of Land Management relate to George Floyd or how would George Floyd relate to Black Latino Male? Moreover, I could see how “smatter” might be a problem if the algorithm is checking for snuff video content. If the usage is fast and meant to send messages, there’s also a problem with the amount of traffic experienced in specific geolocations. Originally, TikTok wasn’t set up to be fast communication like Twitter.
The documentary does look at the kind of hate some creators face, the exploitation of young people as thirst traps, and the burden of young people being the breadwinner of the family. In San Diego, Deja Foxx notes how one can be empowered by your sexuality or exploited. The documentary notes that women are seeing larger followings and Foxx notes that there is more attention to posts where she’s showing more skin. The documentary shows her swimming in a bikini. You almost wish that young girls and their guardians were required to watch another documentary: “Brainwashed: Sex – Camera – Power” or listen to the lecture it was based on.
Shalini Kantayya points out that previously there had been worries about Facebook and, before Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was speaking against TikTok before US Congress, he was trying to buy it.
Mark Zuckerberg says TikTok is a threat to democracy, but didn’t say he spent 6 months trying to buy its predecessor (13 November 2019)
Facebook kept investors in the dark as it fretted about an exodus of teens to Snapchat and TikTok (25 October 2021)
- TikTok reached 1 billion monthly active users (27 September 2021)
TikTok was the first Chinese app to threaten the dominance of Silicon Valley and the US. One wonders if the racism behind the East Asian stereotype was part of that underestimation. But China isn’t known as a country that values privacy, international copyrights and free speech.
Unlike Facebook where people choose to join groups, TikTok has a mysterious algorithm that sorts people by age and location. It watches you watching and determines what you like and then slowly attempts to customize the stream of content you receive. Leaked documents also indicate that shadow blocking (hiding content or invisible censorship) has in the past been based on appearance, age, body type and general social attractiveness. Things like disabilities, LGBTQ identification, facial disfigurement, people with Down Syndrome or autism, disabled people or people with facial problems, people who are too thin or too fat or old people with too many wrinkles were shadow blocked. The censorship also remains for mention of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Tibetan independence.
TikTok censors references to Tiananmen and Tibet (25 September 2019)
Revealed: how TikTok censors videos that do not please Beijing (25 September 2019)
When you hear about all those groups that have been shadow blocked, the complaints of #BlackLivesMatter advocates seems to be less weighty. Compared to a political-motivated massacre carried out against demonstrators for democracy, an ethnic genocide and issues of lost sovereignty, the Black Lives Matter complaint seems to be a relatively minor issue. And then the apology and victory resulting from social pressure for Black Lives Matter could be interpreted as a decoy to distract people from larger issues such as the Chinese still living in exile. Kantayya shows that Chinese influencers are under even greater scrutiny, even when they aren’t a doctor with explosive news about a pandemic.
And yet, is all censorship bad? Kelly Marie Tran left social media because of trolls. She was 32. The Western Journal reported that a hashtag that targeted the American-born skater, Zhu Yi, after a disastrous performance at the Olympics was censored. Zhu Yi was born in Los Angeles, but renounced her US citizenship to compete for China.
Moreover, the talking head experts w, suggest that this kind of content streaming actually increases social disparities. You end up speaking to the choir instead of finding opinions that might challenge your thought processes. Facebook isn’t totally against TikTok. I now see regular feeds of TikTok videos on Facebook. And Facebook, more than TikTok seems to be the buyers remorse marketplace for fly-by-night Chinese companies that often steal merchandise photos from other companies. In my experience, Facebook is less attentive to consumer/user complaints than Twitter or Yelp.
There’s no denying that TikTok is an evolving community, a popular form of social media from a company that has little transparency. What will happen to the data collected? If consumers can’t trust Facebook, then can they trust TikTok with all the information it’s collecting.
“TikTok Boom” doesn’t offer any answers but presents a myriad of questions in what is a cybersecurity story, a business success story, a geopolitical story and an algorithm story. This is a cautionary tale for social media users and although certain to be outdated in the blink of cyberspace as new apps come out and the current ones compete to remain relevant to new generations. With each step, tweet, post and shared video, cyber security strategist Rick McElroy reminds us that “data is the new oil” and “TikTok Boom” reminds us that like the oil industry, the social media industry might not always be the best thing for a healthy world.
“TikTok Boom” made its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Matthew Brennan (“Attention Factory: The Story of TikTOk and China’s ByteDance,” 2020)
Alex Hern, UK Technology Editor for the Guardian
Rick McElroy, Cyber Security Strategist
Eugene Wei, former Product Team executive for Amazon, Hulu and Oculus