TikTok Plays Catch-Up on Hate Speech But Still Trails Rivals

TikTok is stepping up efforts to counter the spread of hate speech on its platform. But it’s still playing catch-up with other social-media companies, including ones that have been criticized for their handling of the issue.

The company announced Thursday that it’s improving its hate-speech policies, providing more transparency and investing in partnerships to help police misconduct. It’s also removed more than 380,000 videos that promote “hateful content or behavior,” such as the denial of the Holocaust or slavery.

But there’s still much ground to be covered. According to a recent study from IPG Mediabrands -- a firm owned by advertising giant Interpublic Group -- TikTok ranked the lowest in media responsibility out of all social-media platforms, including YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The report rated the companies based on 10 measures, including the promotion of respect, data collection and advertising transparency. YouTube was ranked highest, though none of the services had stellar scores, Mediabrands found.

Hate speech was one of the areas where TikTok performed the lowest out of its peers -- a failing that the company acknowledged this week.

“We recognize the perhaps insurmountable challenge to completely eliminate hate on TikTok,” Eric Han, the service’s head of safety in the U.S., said in a blog post.

Of course, TikTok faces a pretty big distraction as it tries to rein in misconduct. The White House has been escalating pressure on its Chinese owner, ByteDance Ltd., calling for a complete shutdown of TikTok’s U.S. operations or a sale of the app.

That’s left TikTok in the awkward position of trying to refine its service while also avoiding a ban. In an interview this week, senior executive Vanessa Pappas said there were “multiple paths” to continue operating in the U.S.

On the hate-speech front, TikTok’s announcement indicates that it is taking a “step in the right direction,” said Joshua Lowcock, global chief brand safety officer at Mediabrands. Hate speech was “one of the areas they significantly underperformed in the market.”

Still, this week’s changes didn’t go far enough to turn TikTok into an industry benchmark, according to Lowcock.

One of the ways social-media platforms can stop hate speech is by expanding their range of protected groups -- minority groups that are often victims of hate. Despite increasing this number, TikTok still trails behind YouTube, he said: TikTok has 11 protected groups, compared with 13 on YouTube.

“The challenge for all of this is if you don’t have the protected categories, the number of protected categories right, you end up in this gray area when there is problematic content on the platform because your policy hasn’t clearly given the company a way to enforce the rules,” he said. “So the more deliberate you are with your choices, the easier it is to enforce your policy.”

It’s become a bigger issue for advertisers, some of which have boycotted Facebook Inc. over how it handles hate speech and misinformation.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg also faced questions on the issue at a House Financial Services Committee hearing last year. But TikTok actually ranked below Facebook in the recent Mediabrands report in all 10 categories, including hate speech.

TikTok still has an opportunity to turn things around, Lowcock said. A key step would be to provide more transparency, with quarterly reports on the issue and more insight into its dealings with advertisers and third parties, he said.

“Right now, they’re being a follower, while they have an opportunity to be a leader,” Lowcock said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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