TokTok: Is Ad Integrity Is Job Number One?

November 1, 2022


Syrian refugees are still in desperate need of support, and responding to pleas on TikTok is an understandable impulse. However, one should consider how much of any donation will actually help intended recipients and how much will slide into other pockets along the way. The BBC reveals, “TikTok Profits from Livestreams of Families Begging.” Reporters Hannah Gelbart, Mamdouh Akbiek and Ziad Al-Qattan write:

“Children are livestreaming on the social media app for hours, pleading for digital gifts with a cash value. The BBC saw streams earning up to $1,000 (£900) an hour, but found the people in the camps received only a tiny fraction of that.”

In fact, BBC researchers found TikTok owner ByteDance was taking up to 70% of donations meant for Syrian refugees. But wait, there’s more. Of the remaining 30%, 10% went to the local equivalent of Western Union and a hefty 35% of the last fifth went to a middleman, leaving the actual family with a paltry sum. For middlemen, though, this is quite the opportunity. We learn:

“In the camps in north-west Syria, the BBC found that the trend was being facilitated by so-called ‘TikTok middlemen,’ who provided families with the phones and equipment to go live. The middlemen said they worked with agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East, who gave the families access to TikTok accounts. … Hamid, one of the TikTok middlemen in the camps, told the BBC he had sold his livestock to pay for a mobile phone, SIM card and wi-fi connection to work with families on TikTok. He now broadcasts with 12 different families, for several hours a day. Hamid said he uses TikTok to help families make a living. He pays them most of the profits, minus his running costs, he said.”

Yes, we are sure he has quite the overhead. Note it is the families putting in the most effort here, pouring their hearts out to strangers for hours each day. Yet TikTok insists none of its Terms of Use are being violated, including the provision to “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors. Unfortunately, residents of many of these camps have few options because local charities are stretched way too thin. For now, TikTok and its middlemen seem to be the only place many can turn.

Cynthia Murrell, November 1, 2022


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