Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the app TikTok,
and chances are you also have the app (a billion people do), and if you have the app, you also probably spend more time than you are willing to admit scrolling through videos.
You’re not alone, I’ve done my fair share of procrastinating on TikTok and gone down plenty of algorithm-inspired rabbit holes.
A common critique that the app gets is being superficial, white girls dancing mediocrely, thirst traps from f-boys, and influencers like Emily Mariko making lunch all get millions of likes on every video. There’s truth to the criticism, the app favors popularity and interaction. If you see a video with three million likes, chances are it also popped up on your friends’ For You Page as well.
However, I’m quick to defend TikTok from this because unless you’re on the app, you don’t know that there are about a million different sides of TikTok.
So someone who is BookTok or WitchTok has probably never had Charli D’Amelio on their For You Page. Until I searched for Charli, Addison Rae, and Lil’ Huddy, I never saw their content.
During the spring and summer of 2020 aka peak quarantine, TikTok was a place of immense growth and learning for me. Getting to hear the perspectives of black and POC creators challenged a lot of the beliefs that I passively held and revealed many blind spots in the way I loved people.
But we can’t ignore the app’s faults
After summer 2020, a lot of the creators who were speaking on issues like systemic racism and injustice stopped getting views, likes, and new follows. But this wasn’t because people were no longer interested in hearing their thoughts because even people who followed these accounts stopped seeing their content.
This is when the term “shadow-banned” was put into use on TikTok. Being shadow-banned means that TikTok’s algorithm has pretty much altogether stopped putting new videos on people’s For You Page and Following page. Creators who get shadow-banned can go from millions of views to one or two hundred views in a matter of days.
This suppression can completely crush the motivation of creators to make new content that has positive impacts.
There’s research about this
And for my feature project, this is what I want to look into. Is TikTok intentionally suppressing creators who identify with marginalized social groups? Should TikTok be held accountable for the algorithm that is suppressing certain content?
I’ve been looking into this and I found a really interesting piece in the journal from the Association for Computing Machines called “Algorithmic Folk Theories and Identity: How TikTok Users Co-Produce Knowledge of Identity and Engage in Algorithmic Resistance.” Really catchy title right?
The researchers of this article interviewed 15 people who use TikTok regularly, and most of them are in one or multiple socially marginalized groups, whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, annual income, or level of education. Each of them has experienced or witnessed the harm in TikTok’s hyperspecific algorithm and seen the effects of shadow-banning.
These users also each engage in several forms of resistance against the algorithm. Because they have experienced content being suppressed promoting certain causes, they will comment multiple times, like, share, and follow the creator to help the message spread. They also report altering the way they deliver content to avoid being flagged by the algorithm.
They found that there are people who hold algorithmic privilege, and those who are algorithmic representational harm, and the users have found ways to combat representational harm through privileged platforms.
So what does this mean?
To me, this article means a couple of things.
- It means that there is a shared experience of content censoring across TikTok.
- It means that there are common themes, words and phrases, and ideologies that get flagged by the algorithm.
- It means that there are real-life consequences that come from shadow-banning.
Even though TikTok claims to promote diversity, the experiences of the users clearly show otherwise. And I’ve seen it too when I find that creators I follow have disappeared from my For You Page.
And there’s a reason for it. I’d like to find out why.