Video-sharing app TikTok has apologised after a BBC investigation found that some of the platform’s younger users felt “exploited” by influencers on the app. According to the BBC, TikTok lets some of its users send “digital gifts” to their favourite influencers on the platform. The live streams present an opportunity for fans to send digital gifts, which appear as on-screen animations, to the influencer. The BBC investigation found that some influencers have been offering to share their personal details such as phone numbers in exchange for gifts, and some creators even asked for money in exchange for “likes” and “follows.”TikTok is most popular with Gen Z and has around 500 million regular users. The app ranked fourth overall in the world’s most downloaded apps across iOS and Google Play stores in Q1 this year and was reported to be the most downloaded Android app in the US.However, last year, TikTok came under fire as it was accused of illegally collecting under-13’s personal details without their parents’ consent and as a result was fined £4.5 million by US Federal Trade. The platform is also currently being investigated in the UK for how it shares and collects personal, private data of underage users. There are also concerns around the open messaging system, which can mean adult users can contact children.

What does the industry think?

Daisuke Kobayashi,

team manager for Opt Inc., said this ‘trend’ of live stream gifting might be influenced by the unique Chinese custom “投げ銭 (to give money)”. He explained that this kind of streaming gifting is popular in China but is not something he sees happening in the Western market. Therefore, people in other markets may think it odd. “The compliance issue could be one of the barriers for Bytedance (the company that owns TikTok) to grapple with,” he said.In an article he wrote for Medium, Kobayashi outlined that “if your content is excellent, you can get the astonishing number of reaches in a moment. However, this algorithm has some risks. For example, if the wrong person tries to deliver illegal content, like child pornography, they might be able to get hundreds of thousands of reaches as quick as a flash. TikTok says they are blocking such inappropriate content through both AI technology and human eyes, but it is extremely difficult to prevent such violators from doing ill without any fail.”  Meanwhile,

Sophia Durrani

, managing partner for strategy, UM said: “TikTok has done an impressive job in finding a way to successfully engage a younger audience – which is easier said than done. However, digital businesses dealing with young people invariably open themselves up to a degree of risk. If it is to continue its rapid growth trajectory it will need to tread a fine line between balancing their commercial proposition with their ethical duty.”“TikTok is already being investigated by regulators on both sides of the Atlantic, so this news really couldn’t come at a worse time for them. It will certainly open it up for further scrutiny. This should be a wake-up call for TikTok, and other platforms like it, to take extra care,” Durrani added.

Maddy Raven

, head of music promotion at Burstimo works with artists to develop and grow their brand. Over the past year, she says TikTok has been a huge part of their promotional strategy as they work with influencers to create content using the artist’s music, with the aim to get the track trending. As a music PR company, we work with TikTok influencers daily, creating content with our artist’s music, with the aim to get the track trending and potentially go viral. We’ve found the TikTok influencers to not only be creative with their content ideas but considerate of their audience,” Raven explained. “Due to TikTok’s young audience, the influencers have far more of an impact on users compared to other platforms, which seems to have given TikTok influencers a bad name. Just because the users are impressionable, doesn’t mean they’re not vulnerable on other platforms where influencer marketing takes place. If anything, we see TikTok as a lot more honest than a comparable such as television, where there is paid placement within kids’ TV shows and adverts placed with the aim to secure sales. As TikTok gives its users free content, influencers should have the choice on whether they’d like to monetise on that attention or not,” she continued.When it comes to regulation, Philip Brown, consulting services director, EMEA at Traackr thinks “TikTok influencers need guidance on what’s proper online behaviour; be true to your audience, and never take advantage of those that are the cornerstone of your success.” He pointed out that the concept of gifting is not uncommon and people gift to Twitch streamers frequently – and perhaps having a younger audience base doesn’t contribute – but “the execution of TikTok doesn’t seem to be working in quite the same way.” On the other hand,

Carina Toledo

, influencer partnerships manager at Awin thinks the feature should not be available for under 16s or 18s, stating that parents also need to educate their kids better on these app purchases considering how much time they’re allowing children to spend on tablets and phones.“Tik Tok needs to remove or censor the influencers and this content. An investigation is already underway as Tik Tok has been collecting minors details without the permission of parents and using this for targeted marketing. Minors are a vulnerable market, as they are easy to influence and are naive to what is being offered to them, and this is pure exploitation. Influencers need to use their platform to influence positively, and not exploit. Blocking these accounts will send a strong message to other influencers, and also limiting the age of people who can use the app will prevent this content from being created,” commented

Hayley Smith

, head of PR at Boxed Out PR who work with influencers regularly. 

What is TikTok doing about it?

TikTok said that it would look to improve its policies and guidelines but didn’t explain exactly how. “We do not tolerate behaviours that are deceptive in nature and we are sorry to hear some of the users’ experiences,” the platform said in a statement.The pressure is on for TikTok to update its platform and guidelines and it will be interesting to see how it will try to combat the issue as brands and marketers continue to adopt the channel as more and more people use the app. 

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