On the short-form video app TikTok, everyone from a comedian with a million followers to a lonely dog owner has captioned a clip with a simple gripe: “TikTok took this down.”
They might follow up their repost of a previously-deleted video with, “So don’t let this flop.” In other words: Share this video, please, because we’re losing our fight with the almighty algorithm.
What they never say—and likely will never know—is why TikTok took their videos down in the first place. The company behind the wildly popular app will send an in-app notification of a video’s removal, but it reserves the right to remove content “for any reason or no reason.” But creators tell The Daily Beast frequent cuts and inconsistent enforcement of the community guidelines make their potentially quite lucrative work much harder.
“We’ll wake up every day to a video that we worked hard on—say it took an hour to film—taken down,” said Cristian Rodriguez, who posts memes and comedy to @therodrigueztwins and its 755,000 followers alongside his twin brother Sergio from their home city of Lubbock, Texas. “One day it was because we had a butter knife in the background while we made a PB&J. We think that’s why, anyway. They don’t tell us.”
Since launching in 2017, TikTok has ballooned to a community of a billion-plus people and adds more users every day. So the ways the platform decides to police its content will affect what hundreds of thousands of people see—and make or break the careers of a newly minted class of internet-famous personalities hoping to cash in on deals with brands.
The app’s community guidelines prohibit content similar to the stuff banned by other big social networks—terrorism, hate speech, violence, crime, harassment, nudity, disinformation. But influencers say what gets flagged goes far beyond flagrant violations into the ridiculous—apparently censoring common household items like Rodriguez’s utensil out of concerns about safety, for example.
“After that, I got so mad. Five videos into my For You page,” he said, referring to TikTok’s way of offering people content they might like, “I saw someone hanging off a cliff trying to take a selfie with over 100k likes. And I’m like, ‘Why? What? That happens daily. We move on and post the video to Instagram or something.”
“The communication between us and TikTok is zero,” Rodriguez—who depends on several different social media profiles for income—said, despite efforts to get in touch.
A spokesperson for TikTok told The Daily Beast the company uses a “combination of policies, technologies, and moderation strategies to detect and review problematic content, accounts, and implement appropriate penalties.”
“We have a dedicated, growing and experienced moderation team to manually cross review videos and accounts, and we constantly roll out internal trainings and processes to improve moderation accuracy and efficiency,” the spokesperson said.
Chinese startup ByteDance, worth a reported $78 billion, owns TikTok and its Communist-Party-approved sibling app Douyin. Fears of censorship have followed the company during its products’ rapid spread from China to the rest of the world, but influencers who spoke to The Daily Beast said the removals they encounter don’t seem political—just mundane.
“TikTok is targeting the younger audience. They don’t want young kids to run with scissors. As an adult, it angers all of us, but they’re making it this universal platform for any age,” said Dominic Andre, a master’s student in psychology in California who posts comedy and memes as @dominicandre_ to 971,000 followers. (Andre asked to be identified by his social media pseudonym to prevent harassment.)
“There are so many videos. TikTok plays it overly safe and ban lots of stuff,” he said. The app banned one of his videos because of the knife used to slice a friend’s bag of milk tea with boba, he claimed, though he said he never received an explanation. He guessed the knife was the problem, so he cut the initial shot of opening a drawer to retrieve it, and the reuploaded video stayed.
If a video is removed, sometimes its creator need only add it again it to bypass censors, according to Connor Alne, the head esports coach at Ottawa University who posts as @coachalne every day to 186,000 followers.
“TikTok is particularly sensitive about hate speech and the particular words you use,” Alne said. “Vulgar words, words flagged as inappropriate—the algorithm will either take a video down, decide not to distribute that video widely, or hit it with ‘under review’ before it’s even out, which happened to one of my videos.
“I don’t know why,” he said.
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Andre’s most popular video, his first, depicted his family sitting on couches and arguing about his sister’s TikTok account (“She’s literally saying ‘You’re a slave to my pussy,’ on social media!” his girlfriend yells in the video). It reached four and a half million views. A caption tells the rest of (his version of) the story: “TikTok has deleted this 4 times, their workers blocked me on LinkedIn too. Send this to the top. Send a message!”
He uploaded it again four days later.
The app will sometimes add a label to videos of potentially risky behavior that reads, “The action in this video could result in serious injury,” as it did with a recent clip of a surfer swimming beneath his board alongside a pair of lurking reef sharks.
Questions linger over TikTok’s moderation process despite a charm offensive from its CEO Alex Zhu and reassurances that Beijing holds little sway over the app. The U.S. government opened a national security review of the app in November, and the Army has banned soldiers from using it on their phones. According to internal company documents also published in November, TikTok’s leaders instructed moderators to keep political content from going viral.
Perhaps most controversially, the app’s spokespeople admitted last month that it had limited the reach of creators its artificial intelligence identified as queer, fat, or disabled in order to prevent bullying, though they said that policy had since been halted. Meanwhile, a California college student filed suit against the company the same month for allegedly storing her data on Chinese servers, which TikTok denied.
The ever-shifting guidelines are having at least some effect: Creators who spoke to The Daily Beast said they keep their videos G-rated because of what they feel TikTok now (or might soon) expect of them.
“I stay away from curse words, weapons, sexual content, anything that I wouldn’t show my nephew,” said Franky Aguilar, an artist in Las Vegas who posts videos of himself painting to his 75,500 followers.
In fact, the willingness of the platform’s moderators to be proactive has drawn praise from some of the same people who think it over-steps
“At the end of the day, it sucks for individuals. But as a whole, walking into the platform and feeling safe is a major benefit,” Andre said.
Still, influencers argued the uncertainty that hovers over their uploads costs them money. Brands don’t want to join a partnership that may never even leave the harbor.
“TikTok has been more difficult to predict and to use my normal content based on the strict guidelines,” said Amber Torrealba, who posts videos of herself skimboarding to 411,000 followers @ambertorrealba. “Brand deals can definitely be harder to forecast because of these variables.”
Torrealba said TikTok has in at least four cases seemed to prevent her videos from gaining traction. She would upload a video, post it, but it would receive zero views and not appear on her profile, she said. She was never sure why. But after she gained roughly 200,000 followers in recent months, the problem seemed to vanish, she added.
Sergio Rodriguez said it was “almost impossible” to convince brands their deals will produce some return on investment because of the unpredictability inherent in the social network. Influencers’ incomes can vary widely based on the number of followers—Alne said none of the pricing he uses for Instagram applies to TikTok, which makes communicating with corporate representatives difficult and can stymie negotiations.
If TikTok is so onerous, why not decamp to another platform? Basically, the getting’s too good: Creators told The Daily Beast that TikTok brought more followers to their other social media profiles than those same rival social networks did.
“It’s a lot harder than any other platform to create content for, but the engagement is higher than other social media.” Andre said, explaining how he used his success on TikTok to grow a channel on YouTube. Aguilar boosts his Instagram via TikTok. “It’s a double edged sword—grow as fast as you want, but they ban everything,” Andre added.
The company updated its community guidelines in early January, and it remains to be seen whether the changes make a material difference in the day-to-day content cycle creators must keep up with.
But even as vagaries of content moderation come and go, one overarching uncertainty remains: will the app stick around?
“TikTok is the platform that’s making us who we are. I’m frustrated and I’m scared, but I’m also grateful,” Sergio Rodriguez said. “Now that the US government is investigating Tiktok, it could vanish overnight if they say ‘Nope, TikTok should not be part of the U.S. any more.’ That’s what we’re extremely afraid of. All our hard work would be gone.”