The social media platform Tiktok has long been critiqued for its discriminating, censoring, hiding, and down prioritizing content from minority groups, as well as the platform turning a blind eye to plagiarism. One highly affected and vocal group has been the apps’ black creators, who report content being removed, rendered invisible, and cases where their content has been copied by a white creator that gets more attention without crediting the original source.
Tiktok is an audiovisual social media platform where much of the content is similar to what Manovich (2001) exemplifies with the DJ as someone who selects and combines preexistent elements to create a new artistic form and object. The artistry of the DJ selection and combination is not an end in and of itself, the art lies in what is selected and how the elements are mixed in rich and sophisticated ways. In the same fashion users on Tiktok produce content combining videos with sounds and in some cases text. Although some of the content is fully original, meaning that the audiovisual content is recorded by the user, much is a mix of original and non-original content, for example a video from a tv-show can be combined with the sound from another show or a song or mix of several songs. It can also be in part original and in part an already produced source, for example a video of the user combined with a song or sound from a tv-show or the other way around a video with voiceover by the content creator. These are just some of the many examples of the content that can be found on the platform.
As there are somewhat differing issues of how black creators are treated unfairly on the platform there are also different solutions. For example the solution of censorship would be the obvious to not censor content, an action which might sound simple enough. However, when the choice lies between the application being banned altogether or adhering to the policies of the country by censoring content in said country, expecting Tiktok not to censor content is naive. In the case of down prioritizing or hiding content on social justice issues in countries that do not have censorship laws, yet again the solution would be a simple one; to not do this. Why Tiktok treats some content and creators in this way is baffling to most users and outside spectators.
One popular genre is videos of users creating dances to one or several songs mixed together which become a trend picked up by other users copying the dance together with the music published for the specific sound, these dance challenges are what I will use as an example in this case. What I would like to address is the phenomena of cultural appropriation, such as when white content creators copy a dance and receive more attention, taking credit and make profit off of content originating from black creators.
Several authors touch upon how new technologies, and within that algorithms, affect our knowledge and perception of the world. While Cheney-Lippold mainly focuses on how algorithms construct versions of ourselves that are not necessarily true reflections of who we are, parts of his writings refer to a broader sense of how algorithms shape our perceptions without our awareness, using Google as an example of how their algorithm has a remarkable power when it comes to sorting knowledge and thus affecting our interpretation or view on society. Pointing to the power of algorithms Annanay writes that algorithms select and define information prioritizing, legitimizing and in this selection ascribing legitimacy and public significance to information.
The 10s and 0s of visibility
In the introduction of “Want to be on the top? Algorithmic power and the threat of invisibility on Facebook” Tania Bucher signifies how visibility in media is a competition of power and media sort, classify and rank the social field. This is echoed by Cheyney-Lippold who notes that communication technologies determine who is given the opportunity to speak and who is not, and exclusion and lack of representation of certain groups.
The visibility of content or content creators on Tiktok works in many ways as Facebook’s news feed which is the object of study in Buchers’ article. As on Facebook where users can choose between a feed consisting of “Top News” and “Most recent”, Tiktok divides the feed into “Following” and “For you”. Top news or for you feed is comprised of posts that are deemed relevant by the platform judging by interactions between users (or on Tiktok also topics and hashtags), the more interactions in the form of comments, messages and likes between two specific users (or topics) the more likely that this content will be presented as Top news or on the For you-feed for a specific user. The general interaction of the community as a whole with a post is another factor that affects its relevance, a post with a large amount of likes or comments is also more likely to be featured as Top news or in the For you-section. The “Most Recent” filter on Facebook on the other hand consists of the actions of friends sorted in a chronological order. As in the case of Facebook, Tiktoks Following feed is composed of accounts that a user follows sorted in a chronological order. Tiktok vaguely confirms that the popularity of a post or user affects the visibility by writing:
[…] a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account that has more followers, by virtue of that account having built up a larger follower base [..] (Tiktok 2020)
This is what has been critiqued by users claiming that it is part of what affects visibility to the advantage of accounts with a large following, a majority of whom are white creators. What Butcher pinpoints in her analysis of visibility on Facebook can thus be applied on Tiktok; popularity fosters further popularity. A similar phenomenon can be seen on Twitter, where the “Trends” algorithm is affected by a small number of users with a large following who frequently tweet. As Cheney-Lippold establishes, digital technology exists within current social, political and economic structures which in turn means that digital technology cannot be expected to be objective or detached from these structures.
This so-called personalization is not exclusive to social media platforms, the search engine feature Google News presents results based on individual user’s previous habits, prioritizing results based on what it deems as more relevant for the individual. One such example of algorithms and visibility from the perspective of culture and cultural artifacts is presented by Striphas, namely how Amazon excluded gay and lesbian-themed books from its sales rankings, searches, and bestseller lists. Amazon is an example of how platforms and computational processes have taken over the work of culture and sorting, classifying, and hiercharizing things such as objects and ideas, human thought has shifted into the hands (or 1s and 0s) of large scale computation. Viewing content created by black creatives on Tiktok as cultural artifacts, this is a similar problem in the case of Tiktok where the valuing and importance of creations is left to the platform rather than a communal societal inter-human practice.
The economics of visibility
However, visibility or attention is also a struggle for economic resources as popular creators of Tiktok do not only enjoy attention and a large following, they are also featured in other popular media and can make a revenue off their accounts by collaborating or being sponsored by companies or creating and selling their own merchandise. The threat of invisibility in connection to power that Bucher raises is of course a substantial and important issue to address, however, there is also an economic factor within this phenomenon as creators profiteer from other creators’ ideas and labor.
As Bolin identifies, culture also has an economic value for social networking sites as it is used for advertising and promotion. In a similar fashion Gehl describes the workings of social media as a capitalist method that relies on users to supply and rank content, the attention generated by the user-created content is in turn used to gain profit by exposing users to advertisements.
Since content creators do not receive payment from Tiktok for the content they produce, the option is to make a profit from other channels or projects such as company sponsorships or merchandise, visibility becomes a commodity.
Reading through the comments from black content creators it seems clear that the solution needed is rather a technical one, adapting the feed in order to feature and give credit for content from these creators while protecting content from being copied. If, as Tiktok itself claims black content creators are an integral part of the platform, it is in the company’s best interest to address this issue in order to keep these creators on the platform.
Due to the controversy surrounding Tiktok and black content creators on the platform, the company released a public apology in which they confirmed that a vital part of the platform is its black creators who have been a driving force on the app by starting trends and creating entertaining and inspiring content. However, their answer to this has not been any technical solutions such as an adjustment of the algorithm, rather the company has initiated a Black Creatives incubator program for 100 black creators and music artists. The incubator program will, according to the company, be “nurturing and developing” and “helping to open doors” for said creators. What doors this nurturing will open is unclear, and how this will solve the issue of copying and taking credit for content as well as increasing visibility is not addressed in any way, and users are impressed by neither the apology nor the initiative.
An interesting point is made by Gillespie, Striphas and Bucher; the expectation of objectivity or accuracy in our social media platforms in the selection of Trends lists on Twitter or News feed on Facebook and the discrepancy between what we expect to be able to see and what the platform thinks users should see. There seems to be a misplaced faith in that an algorithm presents what is “right” or “true” in an objective way. In the case of Tiktok, the complaints and expectation of representation is of importance for the company merely from a commercial perspective, the interest in keeping users and content creators on the platform but, the company cannot be expected to do this as with ideology in mind, or the wish to initiate societal change regarding race and representation. Considering this the solutions or projects presented by Tiktok will be weighed between value and cost and it is likely that the platform will address complaints but only up until the point where revenues will outweigh the cost to implement them.
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