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TikTok Accused of Exploiting Starving Families in Syria


collage TikTok logo on cellphone screen and refugee child from Syria
TikTok Accused of Exploiting Starving Families in Syria. Credit: GreekReporter Collage. (left) tiktok, public domain. (right) Syrian Refugee, Bengin Ahmad/wikimedia commons CC BY-SA 4.0

A bombshell report published this week by the BBC has revealed that TikTok, the short-term video hosting platform, is exploiting starving families in Syria through its livestream services.

The company, known as Douyin in China, usually features videos from users involving pranks, tricks, jokes, dances, or simply their lifestyle. However, a new BBC investigation is now charging TikTok with keeping seventy percent of the profits made from livestreaming refugee families begging for donations on the platform.

Is TikTok getting rich off the poor?

According to investigations, it seems that TikTok is in fact getting rich off the poor. Displaced Syrian refugees are allegedly begging for donations in the form of cash gifts on the platform. Yet, very little of the money received is actually going to those requesting it.

syrian child crying
Syrian child refugee. credit: Public Domain

Instead, as reported by Hamid Al-Alwa, one of the TikTok middlemen working with families at a refugee camp, once the company deducts its very generous cut for its own benefit, the money his clients actually get is very little. Most ends up in the pocket of ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, as well as those of various middlemen and guilds.

“If we get a lion as a gift, it’s worth $500,” Hamid said, referring to an animated lion that appears on a live streamer’s screen when a hefty donation is delivered. “By the time it reaches the money exchange in Al-Dana, it’s only $155.”

BBC’s Global Disinformation Unit, BBC News Arabic, and BBC Eye Investigations traced the money donated to the accounts of the refugees. Less than one-fifth, they found, ended up in the hands of the poor and displaced it was meant to serve.

Indeed, after the money transfer shop and middlemen commissions, a family would only end up with nineteen dollars from a donation of over one hundred dollars. This was the finding of a BBC journalist who livestreamed from his Syrian TikTok account. BBC then donated the sum to his account using TikTok’s live-gifting system. Of the initial $106, for instance, he received $33.05 which, by their estimate, meant that nineteen dollars was all that would be left for a family.

A modern-day Oliver Twist story

Akre Camp for Syrian refugees from Rojava
Akre Camp for Syrian refugees from Rojava. Photo Credit: Levi Clancy, CC-BY-SA-4.0/Wikimedia Commons

About thirteen million refugees from Syria have been displaced due to the war. Twelve million are food insecure and fifty percent live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.20 a day. Nearly 5.8 million are children. Many have sought to find sanctuary in Greece and other European countries. Most, however, remain interred in camps.

This makes the newest TikTok trend seem like a modern-day Oliver Twist story in which middlemen recruit refugee children into exploitative work with the promise of making a thousand dollars an hour. The families and children then receive so-called ‘live gifts’ with virtual TikTok coins, which they can convert into a currency called ‘diamonds’ in their TikTok accounts. This can then be exchanged into actual legal tender.

Celebrities, such as former rugby league football player Keith Mason, also donated and encouraged followers to do so as well.

It is yet unclear, however, exactly how TikTok receives its commission. The company does receive the money, nevertheless. Yet, they claim it is significantly less than the alleged seventy percent although they do not provide a specific amount.

The trend began earlier this year when the platform’s users saw their feeds suddenly filled with livestream begging from Syria. Afterwards, Tik-Tok middlemen evidently sprung up in the camps throughout the country’s northwest region. They were supposedly there to help facilitate the process of making the videos by providing live equipment and mobile phones. In the videos, children begged for money on livestream for hours.

As they told BBC, the middlemen were working for agencies associated with TikTok in the Middle East and China. Furthermore, they claimed that it was they who gave the families their TikTok accounts.

The end of the latest TikTok Trend?

Singing helps ease the memories of conflict for Syrian children in Lebanon
Singing helps ease the memories of conflict for Syrian children in Lebanon

TikTok has been one of the fastest growing social media platforms with a gross revenue of $6.2 billion in its first year in 2017.

Its key rules? First, one must have at least a thousand followers before going live. Secondly, TikTok does not permit direct soliciting for gifts. Third, one cannot harm, endanger, or exploit minors on the platform. Nevertheless, despite these regulations, exploitation is actually taking place.

The digital rights organization, Access Now, has spoken out on the BBC revelations, emphasizing that livestreams run contrary to TikTok’s own policies.

In the words of Marwa Fatafta from Access Now, “TikTok clearly states that users are not allowed to explicitly solicit gifts, so this is a clear violation of their own terms of services, as well as the rights of these people.”

Furthermore, though she admits that one has the right to share their stories online “to try to seek support and sympathy,” she qualifies this by underscoring the fact that livestreams “lack dignity and are humiliating.”

When the BBC contacted TikTok using the app and showed them thirty such videos, the company claimed that they were not in violation of its policies.

Later, however, when they contacted TikTok directly, they responded that they were “deeply concerned by the information and allegations brought to [them] by the BBC and have taken prompt and rigorous action.”

“This type of content is not allowed on our platform, and we are further strengthening our global policies around exploitative begging,” TikTok maintained.

TikTok consequently banned all accounts. The livestreaming of refugees for money remains a problem to this day, however, as do continued donations through TikTok.

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