After the BBC launched an investigation into how TikTok profits off Syrian families in crisis—reportedly violating TikTok policies by begging live for TikTok gifts that are exchangeable for cash—TikTok immediately took action, banning all accounts that BBC identified. These accounts, a TikTok spokesperson told Ars, violated TikTok community standards that prohibit “exploitative begging.”
TikTok defines exploitative begging as using children or other vulnerable people in attempts to increase gifts. The platform also prohibits children under 18 from receiving gifts.
“We are deeply concerned by the information brought to us by the BBC,” a TikTok spokesperson said.
BBC’s report suggests that TikTok not only failed to remove infringing livestreams from its platform, but the platform also, through an affiliated agency, seemingly recruited these livestreamers and then profited from accounts it should have banned.
BBC discovered that displaced families in Syria were being recruited by “agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East.” After amassing 1,000 followers, the families, including children, would then conduct livestreams for hours, their accounts generating gifts at rates as high as $1,000 per hour.
From these gifts, BBC reported that TikTok was taking unusually high cuts, up to 70 percent, with families ultimately only receiving $19 out of $106 donated during a BBC experiment on the platform. The rest went to TikTok and the agency that recruited the families and provided them with phones, Wi-Fi, and SIM cards to launch the streams. The agency, BBC reported, is like many others that are “contracted by TikTok to help content creators produce more appealing livestreams.”
Responding to BBC’s report, TikTok has since severed ties with the agency. “This type of content is not allowed on our platform, and we are further expanding our global policies around exploitative begging,” a TikTok spokesperson told Ars.
TikTok disputed one aspect of BBC’s report. A spokesperson told the BBC that TikTok’s “commission from digital gifts was significantly less than 70 percent. But it declined to confirm the exact amount.”
For the families accused of begging on TikTok, the platform is one of few options to request cash online, charities providing aid in Syria told the BBC. Some international charities, like the International Rescue Committee, provide emergency cash assistance to families in the region but did not respond to Ars’ request to comment on the demand for this type of aid compared to donations of food or medical supplies.
On TikTok, families can be paid by other users in coins, and then streamers agree to share a portion of the revenue from those coins with TikTok. That’s where TikTok enters a gray area and appears to be taking money from families in crisis when it should, by its own standards, be removing the streams.
In response to the BBC’s report, TikTok removed all content that the BBC flagged as “exploitative begging.”
A TikTok spokesperson told Ars that the company took action to prevent other agencies it partners with from recruiting families for this sort of livestreaming, saying that TikTok has written “to all our LIVE agencies to remind them of their contractual agreement to adhere to our strict policies.”
When TikTok partners with LIVE agencies, the agencies agree to only take a commission for recruiting livestreamers who do not violate community standards. Because TikTok says it would be impossible to catch all violating content, it relies on agencies to comply with this agreement. Since the BBC report, TikTok has begun reviewing all agency partners and considering strengthening policies to disincentivize apparent rule-breaking.
In Syria, IRC reported that 14 million people need aid, following a decade of war that has displaced more than 12 million.
BBC reported that, because of TikTok’s inconsistency in moderating content it deems exploitative begging, “hundreds of families continue to go live every day, and most of the money donated is still going to TikTok.”