TikTok finally confirmed it manually manipulates views to promote some creators over others.
If there was ever any question that the popular social media app TikTok is manipulating what you do and don’t see behind the scenes, there isn’t any longer. Forbes (via The Verge) reports it spoke to a half dozen current and former employees of the app and its parent company ByteDance, who said that the app regularly engages in what is called “heating” and in response the company confirmed what the sources had to say. In other words, TikTok hand picks videos and boosts them over others, for various reasons including: diversifying its content, courting certain brands and celebrities, and in some cases allegedly for the employees’ personal benefit.
When Forbes reached out to TikTok for confirmation, spokesperson Jamie Favazza responded:
“We promote some videos to help diversify the content experience and introduce celebrities and emerging creators to the TikTok community. Only a few people, based in the U.S., have the ability to approve content for promotion in the U.S., and that content makes up approximately .002% of videos in For You feeds.”
-Jamie Favazza, TikTok spokesperson
This is the first time TikTok has publicly admitted to heating, though The Verge refers to the practice as an “open secret” on the social media app. Other social media platforms engage in heating, though generally any content platforms like Facebook and Google will boost includes some kind of disclaimer, but this generally is not the case with TikTok. One notable exception is when TikTok, like many other sites, partnered with different groups to provide accurate information about COVID-19.
Employees are given a document called the “TikTok Heating Policy” to help them determine what content they should boost. The reasons given to heat content in the document include attracting influencers, promoting “diverse content,” pushing “important information,” and promoting “relevant videos that were missed by the recommendations algorithms.”
It isn’t particularly surprising that TikTok is arbitrarily boosting some content over others, but what is pretty concerning is that Forbes reports employees have a surprising amount of latitude in choosing which content to boost. The publication claims to have documents showing that TikTok employees have been caught heating their own accounts as well as those of friends and loved ones. In at least one case an account got over 3 million views due to the inappropriate heating.
The news brings up some important questions. If TikTok employees have so much freedom that some have gotten away with heating posts for their own personal benefit and those of their friends, what’s to stop them from doing the same in terms of political messages? What will stop a conservative employee from heating likeminded content, for example, or a progressive leaning employee from doing the same with their preferred messages?
It also brings up questions of what many on TikTok creators would call another “open secret”: shadowbanning. Many creators report their average view rate will drop steeply without explanation, leaving them to believe that someone behind the scenes at TikTok is actively suppressing their content. If employees can heat with little or no oversight, what’s to stop them from doing the opposite?