TikTok Employees Arbitrarily Decide What Goes Viral: Report

January 23rd, 2023 9:15 AM

TikTok reportedly confirmed to Forbes magazine that its own employees can arbitrarily boost videos on the platform.

The report, which was published by Forbes on Friday, illustrates just how the company manipulates its users. TikTok and Bytedance employees, per six sources and documents reviews by Forbes, “regularly engage in ‘heating,’ a manual push that ensures specific videos ‘achieve a certain number of video views.’”

The Forbes exposé revealed the extent of the app’s control over users. “[I]n addition to letting the algorithm decide what goes viral, staff at TikTok and ByteDance also secretly hand-pick specific videos and supercharge their distribution,’” Forbes said.

One internal document used by Forbes describes a “heating” feature that boosts certain videos in the user’s personal “For You” feed:

The heating feature refers to boosting videos into the For You feed through operation intervention to achieve a certain number of video views…The total video views of heated videos accounts for a large portion of the daily total video views, around 1-2%, which can have a significant impact on overall core metrics.

Forbes noted that “heated” videos are not labeled, and appear like any other videos the algorithm selects for users. TikTok reportedly uses this power to attract influencers to the platform and increase views. After the report was published, TikTok spokesperson Maureen Shanahan reportedly said in a statement that under the new national security agreement being considered by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, "only vetted TikTok USDS personnel would have the ability to 'heat' videos in the U.S. In addition, source code review by Oracle will verify that there are no alternate means of promoting content." 

“TikTok has often used heating to court influencers and brands, enticing them into partnerships by inflating their videos’ view count,” the Forbes report read. “This suggests that heating has potentially benefitted some influencers and brands — those with whom TikTok has sought business relationships — at the expense of others with whom it has not.”

The report said TikTok also uses the “heating” feature to promote collaborations with celebrities:

One source told Forbes that heating has also been used to boost high-profile collaborations between TikTok and external actors, including NGOs and artists being courted by the platform, and that it was also supposed to be used when a creator in one category (e.g. beauty) created a video in another category (e.g. cooking). In those situations, the person said, heating ‘can help the algorithm find the right audience.’

TikTok also has a troubling history of implementing one-sided censorship.

In a study last year, MRC Free Speech America’s CensorTrack database revealed the app shuts down accounts with little, if any, information as to why the account was suspended.

TikTok canceled the accounts of no fewer than 11 pro-free speech groups since January 2019, according to CensorTrack data. The platform did not provide an explanation for the permanent bans of accounts, like The Babylon Bee; Live Action and its President Lila Rose; American Constitutional Rights Union Executive Director Lt. Col. Allen West and even the Media Research Center’s own MRCTV.

MRC Free Speech America also dissected the app’s troubling ties with the Chinese Communist Party:

When TikTok isn’t busy permanently banning users without providing an explanation, the platform often censors videos for suspiciously arbitrary reasons.

TikTok literally gives the CCP a seat at the board table, and the CCP doesn’t like to be insulted.

BlazeTV podcaster Steven Crowder made a video blasting Maoist communism, and the platform removed it for alleged “hate speech.” Crowder said he made the video hoping that TikTok would ban his account as part of a Twitter movement he started to #TrashTikTok.

What's revealing is that TikTok reportedly "declined to answer questions about whether employees located in China have ever heated content, or whether the company has ever heated content produced by the Chinese government or Chinese state media," according to Forbes.

Conservatives are under attack. Contact your representatives and demand that Big Tech be held to account to mirror the First Amendment while providing transparency, clarity on “hate speech” and equal footing for conservatives. If you have been censored, contact us at the CensorTrack contact form, and help us hold Big Tech accountable.