According to a BBC investigation, up to 70% of cash donations offered to Syrian refugees who have turned to livestream sessions on TikTok to ask for support from the international community are being stopped by the administrator of ByteDance as transaction fees.
In a practice that smacks of exploitation, Syrian refugee children are motivated to join parents and relatives in lengthy livestream sessions on TikTok, begging for digital gifts from viewers lured by the platform’s algorithms. Strongly financially motivated, daily livestreams can generate revenues of up to $1,000 per hourof which only a small part actually reaches Syrian refugees.
Just as TikTok accuses practices of “exploitative begging” of Syrian children and promises to take action to stop live streams that violate the platform’s rules, BBC reporters accuse the platform’s administrator of participating in the exploitation of Syrian refugees by aggressively taxing donations sent to them. At the same time, the way in which these live feeds have managed to slip under the “radar” of TikTok’s content moderation filters for several months is suspicious, to say the least. Basically, ByteDance only started to take action after TikTok users raised the alarm, with suspicions of exploitation or cheating prompting the investigation launched by BBC reporters.
Reacting to the BBC reporters’ investigation, TikTok representatives said only that this type of content was not allowed on its platform and that measures would be taken to stop it. TikTok also rejects accusations that it charges excessive fees for donations, as the commission charged is significantly less than 70%. However, company officials declined to reveal the percentage charged, or how much revenue was earned in this way.
In the camps in northwest Syria, BBC reporters found that the practice of begging on TikTok has been turned into a real business, facilitated by so-called “TikTok intermediaries” who offered families phones and equipment to go live. The intermediaries told reporters that they worked with agencies affiliated with TikTok in China and the Middle East, which gave families access to TikTok accounts. These agencies are part of TikTok’s global strategy of recruiting freelancers and to encourage users to spend more time on the app.
Because TikTok’s algorithm recommends content based on the geographic origin of a user’s phone number, intermediaries said they prefer to use UK SIM cards. They say people in the UK are most generous to children put on their knees every day repeating English phrases like “Please like, please share, please gift” for hours on end.
The gifts they ask for are virtual, but cost viewers real money and can be withdrawn from the app as cash. Livestream viewers send the gifts – from digital roses that cost pennies to virtual lions that cost around $500 – to reward or tip creators for content.
For five months, the BBC tracked 30 TikTok accounts broadcasting live from Syrian camps for displaced people.