In a recent report penned by the Wall Street Journal, several ex TikTok employees have claimed that the social media giant monitored users who have watched LGBTQ+ content on the app and kept a centralised list that was accessible to authorized employees.
At the time (2020 – 21) TikTok’s videos were categorized under topics, including “LGBT”, with the app keeping an accessible dashboard of the usernames and ID numbers of people who had engaged with such videos. The issue, according to the whistleblowers, was that TikTok’s internal dashboard was more accessible than is the case at other social media companies.
Employees were so alarmed by the potential misuse of this data that some stationed in the U.S., U.K., and Australia flagged their concerns around the data being used as blackmail or shared with outside parties to higher-level executives. This led to the dashboard becoming restricted, but at this point it had been visible to a wide range of employees for over a year.
This latest report comes off the back of damning figures released by media monitoring and LGBTQ+ advocacy organisation GLAAD IN 2022 in their pioneering Social Media Safety Index. In the report, GLAAD in collaboration with Ranking Digital Rights and Goodwin Simon Strategic Research, have developed a Platform Scorecard around the safety of each social media platform for LGBTQ+ users. According to the GLAAD website the scorecard, “utilizes twelve LGBTQ-specific indicators to generate numeric ratings with regard to LGBTQ safety, privacy, and expression.”
In the 2022 edition of the report (released in July 2022), all five major social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok) all scored under a 50 out of a possible 100 – with TikTok rating the lowest at 43%.
In that report GLAAD made three major recommendations to TikTok including banning targeted advertising based on sexual orientation and gender identity, make a commitment to diversify TikTok’s workforce, and give users control over their own data. In this last point, GLAAD posits, “TikTok should give users control over their own data, including options to control the company’s collection and inference of information related to users’ sexual orientation and gender identity.”
TikTok has also previously been accused of censoring LGBTQ+ content in compliance with anti-gay laws in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and shadow banning (a practice of suppressing) users who are fat, queer, or disabled.
In a statement to Attitude, a TikTok spokesperson told the site, “Safeguarding the privacy and security of people who use TikTok is one of our top priorities.”
“TikTok does not identify individuals or infer sensitive information such as sexual orientation or race based on what they watch.”
This isn’t the first time TikTok, which is owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, has come under fire for its handling of user data.
In March 2023, CEO Shou Zi Che was called to testify at a congressional hearing over concerns about the app’s data security and privacy practices and its alleged ties to the Chinese government.
With anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment growing around the world (lead by law makers and media institutions) and reflected in the laws coming into play that dangerously impact LGBTQ+ lives – misuse of this data could have deadly consequences.