One-third of all people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been bullied online — a statistic that only gets more devastating for young people who also belong to marginalized groups. Yet while plenty of groups have attempted to put an end to the epidemic, there has yet to be a concerted solve — and some solutions seem to backfire more spectacularly than others.
In a misguided attempt to lessen the burden of bullying on its platform, TikTok began censoring posts by users it identified as disabled, fat, or LGBTQ+, according to a report from the German site NetzPolitik. An anonymous source said that the attempt to curb cyberbullying led to discrimination at the hands of staffers who had to make quick judgements about whether users belonged to groups TikTok perceived as particularly vulnerable to bullying. If they were, the platform allegedly suppressed those users' videos without their consent.
The Guardian reported that some users’ videos weren’t shown outside the country in which they were posted, and other users were kept off of the “For You” page that helps users garner thousands of views. That page is integral is reaching viral fame, building an online presence, and putting videos in front of brand new viewers on the app. While the suppression typically only affected individual videos, some users' entire accounts were reportedly singled out.
In the guidelines TikTok wrote for how to suppress these accounts, which were obtained by NetzPolitik, staffers were instructed to target users “susceptible to bullying or harassment based on their physical or mental condition,” including those with “facial disfigurement, autism, Down syndrome, disabled people, or people with some facial problems.” They also restricted users who had rainbow flags in their bios or described themselves as LGBTQ+. “The list also includes users who are simply fat and self-confident,” NetzPolitik reported.
TikTok told The Verge that the discriminatory actions weren’t supposed to be permanent, but were rather a temporary fix to stop bullying on the platform. “Early on, in response to an increase in bullying on the app, we implemented a blunt and temporary policy,” the Chinese-owned platform said in a followup statement. “While the intention was good, the approach was wrong and we have long since changed the earlier policy in favour of more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.”
This is just the latest scandal in a tumultuous few months for the app. In August, users created a stream of Ted Bundy murder reenactment videos that amassed thousands of views; while the company cannot necessarily control user-generated content, a spokesperson told MTV News that the company had not been aware of the potentially triggering videos at the time. Politically active TikTokers say they have been kicked off of the platform for weeks at a time. What's more, the company is currently battling a lawsuit that alleges the app, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, is filled with surveillance software; this week, TikTok reached a settlement for another lawsuit that claimed it compromised data for children under 13.