Is TikTok exploiting starving families in Syria begging on livestreams for donations to survive?
That’s the charge leveled by the BBC, which investigated how the popular social media platform owned by China’s ByteDance extracts an overly generous cut of the charitable money meant to go to the poor and the destitute.
According to the report, children in refugee camps engage in lengthy streams during which they can earn up to $1,000 an hour in a kind of modern-day version of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
Yet these kids and their families see only a tiny fraction of the money as the bulk of donations end up in the pockets of the platform along with an entire ecosystem of livestreaming guilds, also known as agencies, and middlemen that have sprung up to make a business model out of the practice.
“TikTok clearly states that users are not allowed to explicitly solicit gifts, so this is a clear violation of their own terms of service, as well as the rights of these people,” said Marwa Fatafta of digital rights organization Access Now.
In a statement sent to Fortune, the company wrote the following:
“We are deeply concerned by the information brought to us by the BBC. We have taken prompt and rigorous action to remove the accounts that violated our Community Guidelines, terminate our relationship with the agency in question, and write to all our LIVE agencies to remind them of their contractual agreement to adhere to our strict policies. This type of content is not allowed on our platform, and we are further expanding our global policies around exploitative begging.”
The charge that TikTok is—either knowingly or through neglect—breaching its own pledge to prevent the exploitation of minors is incendiary.
Reporters with the BBC’s global Anti-Disinformation Unit, BBC News Arabic, and BBC Africa Eye Investigations have now tracked money sent to the accounts of Syrian refugees, and found that less than a fifth of the money donated actually ends up with the families in need.
By its count TikTok siphons off the most: As much as 70% can end up in the company’s pocket, part of which is used to then reimburse the expenses of livestreaming guilds that sustain the practice.
So-called TikTok middlemen that provide the families with phones and equipment to go live can then end up earning 35% of whatever is left over from the original donation before the rest goes to those begging on the livestream.
In a statement to the BBC, however, TikTok said this type of exploitive content was not allowed on its platform and pledged to take prompt action.
Although the TikTok public relations team said it did not permit this kind of exploitive content on its platform, the company’s internal content moderation process found no violation of its policies in any of the cases.when the BBC used the in-app system to report 30 accounts featuring children begging.
It was only after the BBC contacted the company directly for an on-record comment that TikTok subsequently banned all of the accounts.
TikTok also claimed its commission from digital gifts was significantly less than 70%, but refrained from specifying the exact amount.
TikTok emerged out of nowhere to become a global phenomenon that has threatened Google’s YouTube, Meta’s Facebook, and Snapchat for attention thanks to its bite-size viral videos that appeal particularly to kids.