TikTok Accused of Encouraging Anti-Social Behaviour in BBC Investigation

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The social media platform, TikTok, has been accused of fanning anti-social behaviour among users, according to an investigation by BBC Three. Former employees of the platform have shared concerns that issues arising on the app are not being robustly addressed due to fear of hampering growth.

Events causing undue public disruption are being driven by TikTok’s algorithm which disproportionately pushes out certain topics, leading to abnormal levels of engagement. These concerns are supported not only by the testimonies of former employees and users of the app, but also data analysis of broader social networks.

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In addition, TikTok’s algorithm and app design reportedly present users with videos they might not typically watch. This reportedly incentivises users to produce unusual content in the hope of gaining more views. Politicians have previously linked this trend with instances of public disorder, such as a threatened mass looting on London’s Oxford Street that was allegedly orchestrated on TikTok.

Over the past months, the BBC has identified four significant events linked to harmful behaviour that garnered disproportionate attention on TikTok. These included frenzied online speculation about a murder case in Idaho that led to innocent people being falsely accused, interference with a missing person investigation in the UK, fueling the spread of vandalism during school protests across the UK, and escalating rioting in France.

The worrisome trend described by former TikTok staffers as akin to “wildfires”, is particularly worrisome due to the young age and impressionability of the app’s user base. Responding to the BBC, a TikTok spokesperson stressed their algorithm is designed to unite communities while prioritising preventive measures, such as reducing the reach of videos with unverified information.

One particular event found on TikTok, a murder case from Idaho, received an astounding two billion views between November 2022 and August 2023. Users rode the brewing frenzy with speculative theories liable to engage viewers. Unlike other social platforms, TikTok’s algorithm pushes content to users deemed potentially interested, regardless of personal connections.

This unusual design, combined with a user base that’s generally more active in content creation, can lead to dangerous participation. In the Idaho case, one user named Jack Showalter was falsely implicated, resulting in harassment and threats to his family.

The kidnapping and subsequent discovery of Nicola Bulley’s body in Lancashire, UK; spurred a similar frenzy in January 2023. Many users, not previously known for posting such content, were drawn in by the event and rewarded with massive view counts. Misinformation spread quickly, leading to real-world interference with the investigation.

Concern over TikTok’s influence has extended to public order, with significant events such as school protests in the UK and riots in France attributed in part to the platform’s reach. Demonstrations and disturbances were recorded and shared, escalating tensions and enticing further participation.

The influence of influencers also raised concerns, particularly in relation to younger users. One influencer was known to encourage rebellion against school rules, with some followers claiming they were suspended or expelled for acting on his advice.

While social networks can amplify events during times of national conversation, the unchecked spread of misinformation and the disregard for its potential real-world consequences on TikTok has become a source of significant concern.