During a South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) held recently, Jeff Louisma, the head of cyber and data defense for TikTok’s US Data Security division, admitted that the company sometimes overrides the app’s algorithm. He stated that the company promotes content, such as the World Cup and Taylor Swift’s entrance onto the platform, and at times boosts it beyond the rating it would have ordinarily received from the recommendation system. This boosting is similar to Netflix’s promotions of featured videos or movies on its homepage. However, Louisma added that this applies to a very small percentage of videos and is subject to the company’s transparent business rules.
Earlier reports suggest that TikTok employees are able to manually push certain content on the app, known as “heating.” Former and current TikTok and ByteDance employees have stated that heated content “accounts for a large portion of the daily total video views, around 1-2%,” according to an internal document. Forbes reported that the executive’s comments confirm that this is indeed the case, and it may add to the global backlash TikTok has received from numerous countries, including the US, Canada, India, the European Union, and the UK. All of these countries have proposed various bans against the platform, citing fears that TikTok’s parent company, Chinese-owned ByteDance, is able to push unwanted viewpoints and information on users. However, TikTok did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Despite the controversy, it is unlikely that users will move away from the platform en masse unless forced by a nationwide ban, as the number of global users is steadily increasing. According to Statistica, the number of global users increased from 655.9 million in 2021 to 755 million in 2022, and it is projected to continue to increase to a shocking 955.3 million users by 2025.
During the conference, Louisma worked to ease any apprehensiveness attendees might have about virality features, adding that the algorithmic push came out of the Los Angeles office and was based on the content users were already searching for. The team first confirmed that the content did not go against its protocols. Louisma said that TikTok’s data-management partner Oracle could review the content, ensuring that no one had introduced any unexpected rules or behavior into the system.
The issue of content moderation is particularly relevant given the current geopolitical climate, as many governments fear that Chinese-owned technology companies such as TikTok may be used to spread propaganda or influence opinion. India, for example, has already banned TikTok over such concerns, while the US government has attempted to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok’s US operations. These issues have fueled concerns about censorship and the role of technology in shaping public discourse.
TikTok’s executive’s admission that the company overrides the app’s algorithm has added fuel to the fire of global backlash the app has received. The controversy surrounding the app and its parent company, ByteDance, has raised concerns about content moderation and censorship, particularly given the geopolitical tensions between China and other countries. Despite these concerns, it is unlikely that users will abandon the platform en masse, given its growing popularity among global users. As such, it remains to be seen how regulators will address these issues and whether they will ultimately lead to the platform’s downfall.