TikTok: A New Weaponized Wasteland?

October 19, 2022

TikTok is the newest video consumption platform, but is it any different than television? Justin Hanagan’s Stay Grounded explores why TikTok Is Just TV Again, because it is a stream of safe, endless, auto-playing content. The article opens with the poignant reminder that television was the victim of the literati for two generations, because of its passive, banal, and massive appealing (appalling [sic]) content. Hanagan acknowledges that the arguments against TV are exaggerated and the definitions of what is considered banal and appealing are subjective. He also reminds people that television is a great unifier and programs have done many things to expose audiences to progressive ideas.

Hanagan, like other viewers, loved that the Internet would force audiences to wake up and demand more intelligent, artistic shows. Television and movie studios relied on generic content to play it safe, except he forgot about the 1980s with talk shows and reality TV. Executives were also finally allowed to apply the “sex sells” mantra for mass consumption. Despite the junk food TV, there are plenty of gourmet options too. The current phase of television is a golden crazy age.

TikTok ranks at the top of any passive entertainment that creates instantaneous endorphins, like the boob tube of the past:

“After all, nobody wants to be a brainless “boob tube” zombie. But, as you dear reader are likely aware, it turns out that for humans- the opportunity to be lightly entertained while doing basically nothing, is very hard to resist. TikTok took a format —very short, easily skippable videos— that already existed on social media (first on Snapchat and Vine, then later on Instagram as “stories”), and basically just dialed the “social” aspect of it waaay down.”

Instead of relying on studies, TikTok uses average viewers with promises of great rewards if they make it viral. It is the possibility of instant fame for everyone with a low-risk, high-return model. It could also be China’s evil plan to dumb down the West with obnoxious content and decreasing attention spans.

Whitney Grace, October 19, 2022

TikTok and Adderall: A Combo of Interest

October 13, 2022

The pandemic has made it challenging to access healthcare in a timely fashion. Virtual visits can help—if done properly. That is why the Department of Health and Human Services began allowing providers to skip in-person evaluations before prescribing controlled substances. It was an emergency measure, but it is difficult to imagine ever stuffing that genie back in its bottle. Naturally, some entities have seized this opportunity to rake in profits at the expense of vulnerable, mostly younger, patients. Vox reports, “‘Scary Easy. Sketchy as Hell.’ How Startups Are Pushing Adderall on TikTok.” Reporter Sara Morrison writes:

“Due to a combination of the pandemic and the rise of telehealth startups, it’s never been easier to come across social media content that will convince you that you might have ADHD, or services that will prescribe meds for it if they determine that you do. But that content isn’t always coming from health care professionals. Much of the TikTok content can be considered inaccurate or misleading. Meanwhile, it’s especially important that ADHD assessments are careful and thorough so that health care professionals can rule out other conditions with the same or similar symptoms as ADHD, look for coexisting conditions, and screen for people who are seeking ADHD meds like Adderall to abuse. Diagnosing someone with a condition they don’t have — and prescribing meds to treat it — means they aren’t getting diagnosed and treated for whatever condition or conditions they do have. And ADHD meds aren’t effective when taken by people who don’t have ADHD, but they can be addictive and abused. … Between the beginning of 2020 and the end of 2021, prescriptions for Adderall and its generic equivalents increased by nearly 25 percent during the pandemic for the 22-44 age group, a trend that health care analytics firm Trilliant Health attributed to ‘the emergence of digital mental health platforms.'”

Accurate diagnoses can be made online, but only if providers dedicate ample time to each assessment—preferable about two hours. These TikTok opportunists allot much less time. The aptly named Done, for example, offers 30-minute assessments with 15-minute follow-ups. Even some of the patients, though eager for a solution, report feeling rushed. Public scrutiny does seem to have curbed the trend somewhat. But Morrison notes Done, for one, is not slowing down its prescription gravy train. See the write-up for more details, but basically Done has partnered with several influencers to push its brand and, it seems, convince TikTok users they need its services. Then, of course, the platform’s algorithm feeds more and more of this content, much of it inaccurate, to users who express any interest in ADHD.

In general, telehealth can be a real boon for those who need healthcare during this time of chronic staff shortages. Too bad some shady companies are seizing this moment profit at all costs.

Cynthia Murrell, October 13, 2022

TikTok E-Commerce a Success—In China, That Is

October 11, 2022

Douyin, TikTok’s predecessor and home-nation counterpart, made a very fruitful decision to emphasize e-commerce in 2020. As owner ByteDance sought to export that success via TikTok, however, the effort has been less lucrative. In an effort to understand why, Rest of World‘s Rui Ma takes a step back and examines “How TikTok Became and e-Commerce Juggernaut in China.” One key factor was live stream shopping events, an arena Douyin dominates despite entering a year after rival Kuaishou and several years after e-commerce titan Alibaba. The interloper chose to focus on brands themselves and smaller sellers instead of major influencers whose audiences could evaporate with a single PR blunder. Ma considers:

“So how does Douyin actually make money from live streaming e-commerce? If you guessed ‘by commission,’ you would only be half-correct, as the platform actually charges very little — typically 1%–5% of sales value, depending on the category of goods being sold. The take rate is low, partly because of the stiffly competitive environment, and partly because this helps boost turnover as more sellers are encouraged to use the platform. But in order to succeed, most of those sellers will have to pay Douyin in other ways, via different forms of advertising. Sound familiar? That’s right — much like how Amazon sellers pay to show up in top search results, Douyin allows you to advertise your live stream in users’ feeds. TikTok has just one option for creators to have paid posts (straightforwardly called ‘Promote’). But Douyin has at least two more, targeted towards boosting the live streams of business accounts. Together, these are believed to be a significant revenue stream for Douyin, and presumably, still part of the playbook TikTok hopes to bring overseas. Since Douyin requires live stream e-commerce transactions to be completed on the platform instead of being redirected elsewhere, this all forms a ‘closed loop,’ where the user never strays from the app. It’s the ideal flywheel, and the envy of platform companies everywhere.”

Then there is Douyin Partners, an imitation of Alibaba’s Taobao program. Third-party partners will set up and operate a seller’s account, from advertising strategy to storefront to logistics. We are told ByteDance has not yet tried to insert Partners into TikTok. Why did step one, the live streaming e-commerce approach, fail in Europe and the US? We are not sure, but it does not look like ByteDance is ready to throw in the global aspiration towel just yet. Stay tuned.

Cynthia Murrell, October 11, 2022

TikTok: A Stream of Weaponized Information?

October 4, 2022

Much of GenZ is now using TikTok as a Google substitute. It seems logical: If one is already spending hours each day on the platform, why not pull up its search function whenever one has a question? Mashable supplies one good reason in, “TikTok’s Search Suggests Misinformation Almost 20 Percent of the Time, Says Report.” Reporter Amanda Yeo cites new research from NewsGuard as she writes:

“When looking for prominent news stories in September, the fact checking organisation found misinformation in almost 20 percent of videos surfaced by the app’s search engine. 540 TikTok videos were analysed as part of this investigation, with 105 found to contain ‘false or misleading claims.’ ‘This means that for searches on topics ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to school shootings and COVID vaccines, TikTok’s users are consistently fed false and misleading claims,’ wrote NewsGuard. NewsGuard’s study also noted that while the four U.S.-based analysts partaking in this study used both neutral and more conspiracy-laden search terms, TikTok itself often suggested controversial terms. Typing in ‘climate change’ may cause the app to suggest searching ‘climate change doesn’t exist,’ and searching ‘COVID vaccine’ might prompt it to suggest tacking ‘exposed’ onto the end. Mashable’s own test from an existing Australian account found only innocuous phrases such as ‘getting my COVID vaccine’ when searching for the latter phrase, however typing in ‘climate change’ did cause TikTok to suggest the search term ‘climate change is a myth.”

Of particular concern is dangerous misinformation about abortion. As access to a safe abortion is blocked or threatened in more and more states, people are seeking alternatives online. Often what they find on TikTok, however, is at best ineffective and at worst lethal. TikTok points to its community guidelines and insists it not only removes dangerous misinformation but also elevates authoritative health-related content and partners with fact checkers. But since the very foundation of the platform rests on user-created and user-shared content, fighting misinformation is a Sisyphean task. It does seem TikTok could at least teach its algorithm not to suggest conspiracy theories. One thing is clear: It remains up to users to protect their own safety by checking facts and considering sources.

Cynthia Murrell, October 4, 2022

Pew Data about Social Media Use: Should I Be Fearful? Answer: Me, No. You? Probably

September 26, 2022

The Pew Research outfit published more data about social media. If you want to look at the factsheet, navigate to this Pew link. I want to focus on one small, probably meaningless item. What interested me was how those in the sample get their news. If I read the snazzy graphics correctly:

  1. 82 percent of those in the sample use YouTube. (Does that make YouTube a monopoly?) Of those YouTube users, 25 percent get their “news” from the Alphabet Google YouTube DeepMind entity.
  2. 30 percent of those in the sample use TikTok, that friendly entity linked with the CCP. Of those TikTok adepts, 10 percent get their news from the Middle Kingdom’s information output and usage intake system.
  3. Other services deliver news, but it is not clear if video is the mechanism. Video interests me because of the Marshall McLuhan hot-cold notion. Video is the digital garden for couch potatoes. Reading is a bit more active, or so the fans of McLuhan would suggest.

Why am I fearful? How about these thoughts, conceived while consuming a cheese sandwich?

  1. Potent mechanisms for injecting shaped or weaponized information into consumers of video news are in the hands of two entities focused on achieving their goals. China is into having the US become subservient to the Middle Kingdom and redress the arrogance Americans have manifested over the years. The AGYD entity wants money and the ability to shape the direction in which it would prefer the users go. My view is their the approach of each entity is the same. The goals are somewhat different.
  2. Most consumers of video and news are unaware of the functionality of weaponized video information. My view is that it is pretty darned good at tearing down and cultivating certain interesting mental frameworks.
  3. Weaponization is trivial, particularly when each AGYD and TikTok can use money to incentivize the individuals and firms producing content for the respective services’ audience.

Net net: Once one pushes into double digit content dependence, a tipping point is something that can cause what appears to be a stable structure to collapse. Can digital information break the camel’s back? For sure. Am I fearful? Nah. Others? Probably not and that increases my concern.

Stephen E Arnold, September 26, 2022

TikTok: A Slick Engine to Output Blackmail Opportunities

September 22, 2022

Some topics are not ready for online experts who think they know how sophisticated data collection and analytics “work.” The article “TikTok’s Algorithms Knew I Was Bi before I Did. I’m Not the Only One” provides a spy-tingling glimpse into what the China-linked TikTok video addiction machine can do. In recent testimony, TikTok’s handwaver explained that the Middle Kingdom’s psychological profile Ming tea pot is just nothing more than kid vids.

The write up explains:

On TikTok, the relationship between user and algorithm is uniquely (even sometimes uncannily) intimate.

This sounds promising: Intimate as in pillow talk, secret thoughts, video moments forgotten but not lost to fancy math. The article continues:

There is something about TikTok that feels particularly suited to these journeys of sexual self-discovery and, in the case of women loving women, I don’t think it’s just the prescient algorithm. The short-form video format lends itself to lightning bolt-like jolts of soul-bearing nakedness…

Is it just me or is the article explaining exactly how TikTok can shape and then cause a particular behavior? I learned more:

I hadn’t knowingly been deceiving or hiding this part of me. I’d simply discovered a more appropriate label. But it was like we were speaking different languages.

Weaponizing TikTok probably does not remake an individual. The opportunity the system presents to an admin with information weaponization in mind is to nudge TikTok absorbers into a mind set and make it easier to shape a confused, impressionable, or clueless person to be like Ponce de Leon and explore something new.

None of this makes much sense to a seventh grader watching shuffle dance steps. But the weaponization of information angle is what make blackmail opportunities bloom. What if the author was not open about the TikTok nudged or induced shift? Could that information or some other unknown or hidden facet of the past be used to obtain access credentials, a USB stuffed with an organization’s secrets, or using a position of trust to advance a particular point of view?

The answer is, “Yep.” Once there is a tool that tool will be used. Then the tool will be applied to other use cases or opportunities to lure people to an idea like “Hey, that island is just part of China” or something similar.

In my opinion, that’s what the article is struggling to articulate: TikTok means trouble, and the author is “not the only one.”

Stephen E Arnold, September 22, 2022

TikTok: Hours per Day Reveal an Intellectual Commitment to Shortened Attention Spans

September 13, 2022

I am in an interesting location. Sorry. No details, no local color. I did spot a citation to the estimable Murdochian Wall Street Journal. The citation I saw was in this Slashdot post: “Instagram Stumbles in Push to Mimic TikTok Internal Documents Show.” I am not too keen on information once private finding its way into the wild, but there is one sentence which I found darned interesting; to wit:

Instagram users cumulatively are spending 17.6 million hours a day watching Reels, less than one-tenth of the 197.8 million hours TikTok users spend each day on that platform…

From my point of view these data reveal an intense, intellectual commitment to creating shortened attention spans. What about reading a — oh, what are those artifacts called? — books.

Wow. A formula for critical thinking and learning complex subjects for sure.

Oh, one detail about my location in the US. My colleague and I watched two young people struggle to read printed instructions for closing out a cash register. Words. Yeah. Words.

Stephen E Arnold, September 13, 2022

A Surprise: Newton Minnow Was Prescient

August 30, 2022

Social media is to blame for most misinformation spreading across the Internet faster than viral videos. Despite declining numbers, TV still plays a huge part in the polarization of the American populace. Ars Technica explains why: “It’s Just Not Social Media: Cable News Has Bigger Effect On Polarization.” While social media echo chambers exist, it is not at the huge scale we have been led to believe.

Researchers from Microsoft Researchers, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania tracked TV consumption from thousands of American adults between 2016 to 2019. They discovered that selective news exposure did increase polarization, but it mostly came from TV. They found that 17% of American TV news watchers are politically polarized with a near-split average between left and right politics. That is three to four times higher than online news watchers.

TV watchers also do not change their viewing habits:

“Besides being more politically siloed on average, our research found that TV news consumers are much more likely than web consumers to maintain the same partisan news diets over time: after six months, left-leaning TV audiences are 10 times more likely to remain segregated than left-leaning online audiences, and right-leaning audiences are 4.5 times more likely than their online counterparts. While these figures may seem intimidating, it is important to keep in mind that even among TV viewers, about 70 percent of right-leaning viewers and about 80 percent of left-leaning viewers do switch their news diets within six months. To the extent that long-lasting echo chambers do exist, then, they include only about 4 percent of the population.”

Also depending on the TV viewers’ political leanings, they never stray too far from preferred news networks. The political imbalance is increasing among how audiences get their news, because more are shifting from broadcast news to cable.

This is not good, because it increases divisions among people rather than showing the commonalities everyone shares. It also makes news more sensational than it needs to be.

Whitney Grace, August 30, 2022

A Triller Thriller: Excitement I Do Not Need

August 26, 2022

Short-form video app Triller is eager to topple TikTok. When its rival was lambasted last summer for allowing white influencers to take credit for trends generated by Black content creators, Triller saw an opportunity. It immediately positioned itself as the platform that respects and elevates Black creators. It reached out to many of them with promises of regular monthly payments and coveted shares of stock while dangling visions of a content house, collaborations, and brand deals. However, whether from disorganization or disregard, The Washington Post reports, Triller is not holding up to its end of the deal. In the article, “A TikTok Rival Promised Millions to Black Creators. Now Some Are Deep in Debt” (paywalled), reporter Taylor Lorenz writes:

“[Dancer David Warren] was part of a group of what Triller touted as 300 Black content creators offered contracts totaling $14 million — ‘the largest ever one-time commitment of capital to Black creators,’ the company bragged in a November news release. But nearly a year after Triller began recruiting Black talent, its payments to many creators have been erratic — and, in some cases, nonexistent, according to interviews with more than two dozen creators, talent managers and former company staff, many of whom spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation from the company. For influencers, it’s a disastrous turn from a platform with a reputation for paying big money, dubbed ‘Triller money,’ to get talent to post on the app. Far from ‘Triller money,’ the Black influencers were promised

$4,000 per month, with half paid in equity, according to documents reviewed by The Post. Warren, used to making content for platforms controlled by other people, found the chance to own a piece of something thrilling. But now, as they cope with uncertain payments, many creators allege they are compelled to keep up with a demanding posting schedule and vague requirements that make it easy for the company to eliminate people from the program.”

Company executives flat-out deny allegations against them, but Lorenz shares her evidence in the article. She describes a toxic climate where administrators callously hold creators to the letter of their grueling agreements while failing to make good on tens of thousands of dollars in payments. In a spectacular display of gall, Triller informed creators it would prioritize keeping a certain amount on the books over its obligations to them as it prepares for its IPO. And those promised shares of stock that had creators feeling empowered? Nowhere to be seen. Whether it is a matter of contemptuous tokenization or mere incompetence, it seems Triller delivers little but a trail of broken promises.

Cynthia Murrell, August 26, 2022

YouTube: Some Proof about Unfindable Content

August 17, 2022

I read “5 Sites to Discover the Best YouTube Channels and Creators Recommended for You.” The write up presents five services which make YouTube content “findable.” What I learned from the article is that YouTube videos are, for the most part, unfindable. A YouTuber can stumble upon a particular video and rely on Google’s unusual recommendation system. In my experience, that system is hobbled by its assorted filters and ad-magnetic methods. If I want to locate a video by eSysman (a fellow who reports about big money yachts loved by some money launderers and oligarchs), Google refers me to NautiStyles, YachtsForSale (quite a sales person is visible on that channel), or the flavor of the day like Bering Yachts. eSysman is the inspiration for one former CIA professional, and her edging into the value of open source intelligence. Does Google’s algorithm “sense” this? Nah, not a clue. What if I want some downhome cookin’ with Cowboy Kent, the chuck wagon totin’, trail hand feedin’ Oklahoma chef. Sorry, promoting Italian chefs are not what I was looking for. Cowboy cookin’ is not Italian restaurateurs showing that their skills are sharper than fry cooks in French restaurants. But what about YouTube search? Yes, isn’t it fantastic? Enough said.

What about the services identified in the article? Each offers different ways to find a video or channel on a specific or semi-specific topic. You can navigate to the source document and work your way through the list of curated “finder” sites.

The write up points out:

YouTube has over 50 million channels, but as you might have guessed, most of them aren’t worth subscribing to.

That’s the type of “oh, well, don’t worry statement” that drives me bonkers. Just let someone tell you what’s good. Go with it. Hey, no problemo. Who wants to consider the implications of hours of video uploaded every minute or the fact that there are 50 million channels from the Googlers’ service.

Several observations:

  1. No one knows what is on YouTube. I have some doubts that filters designed to eliminate certain types of content work particularly well. The idea that the Google screens each and every uploaded video with tools constantly updated to keep track of possibly improper videos is interesting to contemplate. Since no one knows what videos contain, how can one know what’s filtered, allowed in mistakenly, blocked inadvertently, or processed using methods not revealed to the public. (Lists of user “handles” can be quite useful for some purposes.)
  2. Are the channels no one can find actually worthless? I am not too sure. There are channels which present information about how to game the Google algorithm posted by alleged Google “partners.” I engaged in a dialogue with this “professional” and found the exchange quite disturbing. I located the huckster by accident, and I can guarantee that keeping track of this individual is not an easy task. Is that a task a Googler will undertake? Yeah, sure.
  3. YouTube search is one of the many “flavors” of information location the company offers. In my experience, none of the Google search services works very well or delivers on point information without frustration. Does this comment apply to Google Patent search? Yep. What about Google News search? Yep yep. What about regular Google search for company using a common word for its name? Yep yep yep. (Google doesn’t have a clue about a company field code, but it sure pushes ads unrelated to anything I search. I love mindless ads for the non-US content surveillance products that help me express myself clearly. Hey, no I won’t buy.)

Net net: YouTube’s utility is designed for Google ads. The murky methods used to filter content and the poor search and recommender systems illustrate why professional libraries and specific indexing guidelines were developed. Google, of course, thinks that type of dinobaby thinking is not hip.

Yes, it is. Unless Google tames the YouTube, the edifice could fall down. TikTok (which has zero effective search) may just knock a wall or trellis in the YouTube garden over. Google wants to be an avant guard non text giant. Even giants have vulnerable points. The article makes clear that third parties cannot do much to make information findable in YouTube. But in a TikTok world, who cares? Advertisers? Google stakeholders? Those who believe Google’s smart software is alive? I go for the software is alive crowd.

Stephen E Arnold, August 17, 2022

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