Bytedance’s teen protection problem

For China’s most valuable start-up, this year has been a case study in just how difficult it can be to manage social media platforms with international user bases. Things seem to only be getting more complex as well.

Bytedance is the content-aggregation super-unicorn behind China’s most popular news app Jinri Toutiao, as well as a short-video app known as Douyin, TikTok, or Musical.ly, depending on the country or region in which the user resides (as of August 2nd, 2018, all versions outside of China have been branded under the TikTok name, doing away with the Musical.ly brand).

As Bytedance’s users have grown both in China and abroad, so has their valuation. Bytedance does not release valuation figures publicly, but Forbes estimated the company to be worth $11 billion in 2017. They reportedly were seeking funding at $75 billion just 16 months later.

The secret to their success lies in their ability to target content to its users. Often this content is in the form of click-bait news headlines. For its short-video apps, Bytedance targets mostly teen and pre-teen children, who make brief videos, usually while lip-syncing to pop songs.

However, as is often the cases when large numbers of 13 and 14-year-olds congregate without adult supervision, the Beijing-based company’s short-video apps have raised concerns regarding both the safety of the young people involved, as well as the decency standards by which such platforms ought to be governed. While the problems and dangers plaguing Bytedance’s platforms are becoming evident, what is less clear is what, exactly, the company should be required to do about them.

Bytedance representatives were contacted for this piece but did not directly provide a statement.

As teens and pre-teens strive for internet stardom on Bytedance’s short video platforms, many are learning at an early age that sexuality attracts attention. (Screenshots from PayMoneyWubby)

These problems were the focus of a July viral video by YouTuber PayMoneyWubby, exposing a number of the most-viewed videos on the platform Musical.ly featured sexually-suggestive clips of underage teens and pre-teens.

“I’m pretty sure Musical.ly is a pedophile’s dream… Most of these girls are 14, and they’re doing weird sexual shit,” explained the video blogger, sarcastically joking that “if I were a pedophile, Musical.ly would be a beautiful thing.”

Later in the video, while watching a series of Musical.ly clips, he exclaimed in disgust, “How is this allowed? If [the police] pulled this up on my computer, I’d be going to jail!”

Throughout the YouTube video, scantily-clad young people, seeming to range in age from 12 or 13 to 19 or 20, are shown simulating sex acts, dancing suggestively, and lip-syncing to songs with sexually explicit lyrics. While those in the featured short videos remained at least partially clothed, and at least in most Western cultures would not be considered technically pornographic, it is the age of the children in the videos which is so unsettling.

As PayMoneyWubby put it: “It’s so sexualized, but it’s almost exclusively kids.”

After posting the video, the previously little-known YouTube vlogger saw views soar to over 1 million, by far his most successful video, which previously regularly received under 10,000 views.

On August 29th, PayMoneyWubby (who prefers not to disclose his real name) received an email from YouTube itself, informing him that the video had been removed from the platform, and that his channel had been given a “copyright strike,” given often to copyright violators who are removed from the platform after 3 strikes.

YouTube took this action after a copyright complaint was filed by none other than Bytedance itself, claiming that PayMoneyWubby had unlawfully used the Musical.ly logo, and reviewed Musical.ly content in his viral video. In a second video that also went viral with hundreds of thousands of views, the vlogger looked into the “selective” nature of Bytedance’s copyright complaints, using them to remove videos which portray the company’s platform in a negative light, while hundreds of videos remain on YouTube that are straight uploads from Bytedance’s platforms.

After complaints started trending on the social news site Reddit, YouTube removed the copyright strike and put the video back up. YouTube then sent PayMoneyWubby an email, notifying him of the situation with a copy of Bytedance’s initial complaint. The complaint was written in Chinese and cited “an unlawful use” of a Bytedance trademark. In other words, they officially requested that the video be taken down because it had a Musical.ly logo in it, despite the fact that hundreds, if not thousands of videos featuring Bytedance platforms’ logos remain on YouTube. It is also YouTube’s policy that using logos in review videos, as it was in the video in question, does not violate the platform’s terms of service.

It seems plausible that Bytedance was attempting to use YouTube’s copyright protection system to prevent news from coming out about the very real issues with their platform, issues which appear to be an increasingly urgent threat to the company’s international success.

Bytedance’s child “pornography” and “pedophilia” problem

The PayMoneyWubby video is hardly the only one bringing up the issue of child safety on Bytedance’s short video platforms. Although more modest in viewership numbers, other videos on the YouTube platform show a series of creepy middle-aged men making sexually suggestive videos with clearly underage girls.

The tendency for Bytedance’s platforms to become a hotbed of predatory activity was also highlighted by a number of investigative local news reports in the US, raising concerns among parents. Some more conservative societies have banned TikTok altogether, as Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information Technology did temporarily in July of this year, accusing the platform of promoting “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy” and that it “contains negative videos that are deemed to be a bad influence on the youth” of the world’s most populous majority-Muslim nation.

It’s not just a Bytedance problem

The business model for Bytedance, or at least their TikTok platform, is quite clear. They use sophisticated algorithms to target children, exploiting the most fundamental of human desires. By targeting young people, they reach a demographic that is too young to be fully aware of the way the algorithms works, or how they are being exploited, or possibly even put in harm’s way. Their product is designed to be addictive but offers very little in the way of helping their young users develop into healthy, happy, and productive adults.

In other words, Bytedance is McDonald’s. On the internet. But before we pile on this peddler of digital Happy Meals as the target-de-jour of our rage for all that is wrong with the world, let’s take a step back.

After all, many of us love McDonald’s and enjoy a Big Mac every now and then as part of an otherwise healthy lifestyle. McDonald’s provides something that people want to eat, is well-managed, and has consistently provided value to their shareholders. Is it their responsibility if some people choose to scarf down McNuggets and fries so excessively that they put their own health in danger? Is the onus not on parents to ensure that their children stick to a healthy diet? If McDonald’s poses a threat to public health, why do governments not establish and enforce nutritional standards for restaurants, or ban unhealthy fast food altogether?

Thankfully for McDonald’s, most cultures in the world tend to generally agree that dietary choices are to be left to individuals, and in the areas where they differ, McDonald’s is able to localize or adjust their menu, such as by removing beef products in heavily-Hindu India, or by offering apple slices as a substitute for French fries in Happy Meals to appease health-conscious parents.

However, as internet platforms grow increasingly ubiquitous and global, meeting the demands of all stakeholders is proving to be almost impossibly complex. It is this that is quickly becoming the greatest threat to Bytedance’s global success.

Philosophies regarding corporate responsibility, standards of decency, and the role of individuals and the government differ greatly from culture to culture, and internet platforms now face the arduous task of meeting the demands of their global user bases while maintaining the international connectivity that allows them to succeed as businesses.

In many ways, this has been the story of 2018 thus far for Bytedance. After seeing their Chinese user numbers skyrocket and their portfolio of hit apps expand, the company was slapped with a series of disciplinary actions from government regulators. These culminated in a forced shutdown of the company’s popular “Neihan Duanzi” joke app, and the 4 am release of a “self-criticism” written by founder and CEO Zhang Yiming, a document which seemed by many to be more fitting of the China of 1968 than that of 2018.

Within China, Bytedance has played by the rules that govern competition among most internet companies in the Middle Kingdom: Do whatever it takes to secure users, funding, and higher valuations. Do this with extreme intensity, until the government cracks down, at which point apologies will be made and business will continue in a slightly altered form, provided that Beijing allows the company to stay in business.

However, outside of China, governments most often either hold a more hands-off philosophy to internet governance or lack the control capability of the Cyberspace Administration of China to ensure that online activity is to their liking. In these cases, stakeholders, standards, and societal impact can vary greatly. While the Indonesian government may choose to block the app outright, they may face pushback and damage to their brand from concerned parents (or YouTube personalities, for that matter) in the US, or struggle to deal with tightening data regulations in the EU and elsewhere, which could limit the effectiveness of recommendation engines like that of Bytedance.

Learning from Facebook

The challenges of managing this unprecedented complexity are what have brought Facebook to what is possibly the most tempestuous year in the company’s history. From concerns over their platform being exploited to influence elections, to data breaches, to serving as a catalyst for civil unrest and violence, it seems clear that Mark Zuckerberg and co. are struggling to reckon with the complex, global web of social externalities created by their very powerful platform.

However, as Facebook struggles to control the Frankenstein’s monster of their own creation, Bytedance seems to be attempting to build something that shares Facebook’s strengths, while avoiding its downfalls. Sources close to the company have mentioned how adapting to changing regulatory and social environments, both at home and abroad, has become a primary focus of the company’s top management over the past year.

In June, the company announced enhanced privacy and safety features, including allowing users to set accounts to “private,” so that only approved users could view their content, providing the option for users to delete their accounts if they choose so, and restricting private messaging to only between those who are friends on the platform. Parental control functions were also introduced, including a “time lock” feature, which allows parents to set a limit on how much time their children spend on the app. However, it should be noted that many of these features have long been standard on Facebook, Twitter, and other popular platforms.

However, while they can take steps to curb their platforms’ most harmful excesses, the truth is that Bytedance is ultimately beholden to the desires of its users, and the instincts, emotions, and faults which make them human. When asked at an investor meeting about why so much of the content on the company’s platforms seemed to involve “low-quality” content rather than that which is more educational and informative, Bytedance’s Zhang answered frankly: “Every time we run internal tests the results show that viewership drops off precipitously when alternative content like international current affairs, science and technology is served up.”

In other words, Bytedance just gives the people what they want. After all, McDonald’s is successful for their cheeseburgers and fries, not their apple slices.

TechNode does not necessarily endorse the statements made in this article.

Update, 09 October 2018: This piece has been corrected after publication to reflect the fact that Indonesia’s ban was temporary and that Bytedance’s valuation has not been confirmed by the company.