Editors' note: This story has been updated to more clearly attribute phrasing from work previously published in the Los Angeles Times.
The same mechanics that have turned TikTok into this year’s fastest-growing social media app have brought with them a dark side: sexual predation.
In an era when the failure of social media giants to police their platforms has gone from a scandal to a fact of life, an ad hoc network of young women is springing up to combat the exploitation that seems inseparable from the Chinese-owned app’s explosive success.
One of the most popular kinds of videos from TikTok’s users, who are mostly young and female, are lip-synch videos, where they dance and sing along with their favorite songs. These performances are sometimes sexualized by older men who lurk on the app, sending the young creators explicit messages and, in some cases, remixing the videos and dancing along with them via a TikTok feature called “duet.”
And the platform doesn’t just overlook this kind of conduct, like YouTube — its core mechanics inadvertently facilitate it. Like all social media platforms, TikTok is optimized for engagement, algorithmically steering users to content via a “For You" page that works like if Facebook’s News Feed were curated like Netflix’s landing page. It learns what you like and shows you more and more of it. It also reacts in real time, delivering an endless stream of similar videos, even if you aren’t logged in.
“If some creepy guy just keeps liking videos of younger girls doing similar audios or soundtracks or hashtags, those are going to keep coming up on his ‘For You’ page,” said an 18-year-old user named Liz W., who goes by @bithoeji on the app and spoke on the condition her full last name not be used. “So it's easier for him to find more victims. And I think that's what makes it so easy for predators to come on it and victimize young children.”
To fight this, a DIY effort to police TikTok has emerged, with the women at the heart of the DIY effort collecting allegations and evidence of sexual misconduct, blasting it out across YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, bagging and tagging the older men trying to prey on them. They say they have to protect each other on TikTok because they don’t have faith in the company’s ability to keep its users safe. The result: a Lord of the Flies free-for-all where young users weaponize dubious screenshots, defamatory callout videos, and whisper campaigns via group chats to deliver vigilante justice at dizzying speeds.
“Hey, I’m 14”
Liz had been collecting “Creepy TikToks” on an Instagram account for several months when she posted a series of videos of a former TikTok user named Buddy Haynes, now 27 years old. Haynes, known on the app as “@TheBudday" (pronounced “the bidet”), first gained notoriety on TikTok when a video in which he danced to “Good Girls Bad Guys" by the screamo band Falling in Reverse was featured in some cringe compilations created by big YouTubers. He quickly became a viral sensation.
“I run this account where I would just post creepy TikToks to Instagram and I just posted a random video of [Haynes’],” Liz told BuzzFeed News. “One of my followers DM'd me and was like, 'Hey, I'm 14, do you want me to find out if he is [a predator] or not.'”
Which is how one night last September, Haynes ended up messaging a 14-year-old on Instagram. The teenager, now 15, who asked to be identified by her screen name @cherrypopcosplays, said in an interview with her mother present that the conversation became more inappropriate after she told Haynes her age.
“At first we were talking about my cosplays and how he wanted to cosplay,” she told BuzzFeed News. “Then after he started sending videos of him licking his lips and biting them, it made me uncomfortable. But I wanted him to be exposed, so I continued to message him.”
In screenshots — including those both published by Liz and others obtained by BuzzFeed News — Haynes asks @cherrypopcosplays if she thinks he’s attractive. Then he asks her how old she is. When she tells him that she is 14, Haynes continues the conversation saying he wishes he could be in a relationship with her; he sends her dozens of videos of himself, many where he’s shirtless, licking his lips and kissing the camera.
"'Hey, look, this doesn't look good right now. Maybe it's best if you take a month or two off.'”
Liz published the videos and reported Haynes to TikTok. Her allegations against him went viral when a YouTuber named BionicPig made a video called “This TikTok Star Is Taking Advantage Of Children (TheBudday).” It currently has 1.2 million views. Search YouTube for “TheBudday" and you’ll find a proliferation of videos accusing Haynes of being a sexual predator or pedophile.
For a time, Haynes remained active on TikTok, dismissing the allegations and claiming that someone had hacked him. He subsequently admitted to BuzzFeed News that the conversation with @cherrypopcosplays had occurred, but he denied it was sexual in nature. He maintains that he was drunk at the time and unaware of @cherrypopcosplays’ age.
By October, Haynes had been visited by local law enforcement and the FBI, he told BuzzFeed News. A spokesperson for the FBI’s Memphis field office declined to comment on the matter, but told BuzzFeed News that the agency does handle investigations into allegations of an adult using social media to transmit sexual material to minors.
Haynes confirmed these law enforcement encounters and the FBI visit to BuzzFeed News.
“They said, 'Look, we've got complaints,'" Haynes said, noting that the FBI agents were concerned he was talking to underage users. “They asked me about my viewership history on YouTube and porn sites and stuff like that. I was honest with them. That was pretty much the entire conversation … [they] suggested to me to take a break [from TikTok]. Like, 'Hey, look, this doesn't look good right now. Maybe it's best if you take a month or two off.'”
TikTok never replied to Liz and it never contacted Haynes, who ended up deleting his account himself in late November. But when he tried to return to the service in December, he found he’d been banned. He still doesn’t know the reason. TikTok does have processes in place to block banned accounts from making new accounts.
“This is an industry-wide challenge."
“I tried reaching out to TikTok, but I could never get a reply back email,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I even tried the support number.”
Reached for comment, a TikTok spokesperson confirmed that the TheBudday account was banned for violating the company’s community guidelines. They told BuzzFeed News that promoting a safe environment is a top priority.
“We deploy a combination of policies, technology, and moderation strategies to address problematic content or accounts, and implement penalties ranging from restricting certain features to banning an account,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “This is an industry-wide challenge and, while protections won't catch all instances of misuse, we're committed to continuously enhancing our existing measures and introducing additional technical and moderation processes in our ongoing commitment to our users.”
“Block them now because they're bad”
Before TikTok was TikTok, it was a Shanghai-based lip-synching app called Musical.ly. Its user community was quite young, populated predominantly by girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 24, according to app analytics company App Annie. In 2017, a Shanghai-based AI company called ByteDance bought Musical.ly and a year later merged it with its short-video app TikTok, which also operates under the brand Douyin in China.
By 2019, TikTok had amassed more than half a billion users worldwide — and drawn the scrutiny of regulators in the US. In February, it was slapped with a record $5.7 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission to settle allegations that it illegally collected personal information from children under the age of 13. As part of its settlement agreement with the FTC, TikTok promised to create measures to protect its younger users, including tools for parents.
TikTok subsequently updated its Safety Center with new comment controls and a page of resources for the parents of its younger users. These end-user measures were intended to augment the company’s automated policing of its platform. Currently, TikTok allows you to report an account for “pretending to be someone,” “posting inappropriate content,” “inappropriate profile info,” or “other” — an option giving the user the ability to write a custom report. If you report a video, you’re given a similar set of options, which include “pornography,” “terrorism," and “the promotion of drugs or weapons."
According to a company presentation obtained by BuzzFeed News, TikTok also uses artificial intelligence to proactively remove and/or flag questionable or “low quality” videos and accounts that violate its community guidelines. Flagged content is then passed to a 24/7 moderation team (“actual humans”) for review. TikTok says the system works quite well.
"They won't take down the videos of the older creepy men.”
But the TikTok users who spoke to BuzzFeed News say otherwise. There’s an overwhelming sense that flagging accounts or individual videos is of little use, perhaps inflamed by the company’s failure to reply to users who report inappropriate content (an automated response system was added earlier this year) or to notify users when it takes action against their accounts.
Jamie Correll, a 19-year-old who goes by @jammin.710 and who, like Liz, keeps a watchdog account of predatory TikTok users, described the platform’s tools for reporting predation and abuse as wildly inconsistent.
“You can report a video of an old man licking at a 10-year-old girl and it won't get taken down,” Correll told BuzzFeed News. “But if you post a video saying, 'Hey, block these people if your kid is on the app and this person is on their For You page; block them now because they're bad.' They take down those videos. But they won't take down the videos of the older creepy men.”
Some of the murkier scandals on TikTok involve popular creators with particularly young fanbases. One user Correll is especially upset about is Dalton Armstrong, who goes by “Lucifer” or @IraTheFallen on TikTok. He’s 23 and he has 65,000 followers on TikTok right now. Correll told BuzzFeed News she’s reported his account numerous times for inappropriate content and has never heard anything back.
There’s a Change.org petition with over 2,500 signatures demanding that he be removed from TikTok. If you search “irathefallen" on YouTube, you’ll find a number of videos accusing him of sending sexual messages to young users. Tyler Myles, one of the first users to publish a video accusing Armstrong of harassment and abuse, did not respond to requests for comment.
Armstrong is still active on TikTok. In a series of videos posted to his now-private account, he addressed the rumors against him, saying the 17-year-old he was flirting with told him she was 18.
“She told me she was 18 and I believed her,” he said. “She's out here now talking about how I knew she was 17 and I was talking to her and stuff. I’m a 22-year-old. I've been around the block a few times. I'm not going to talk to a kid.”
He did not respond to emails, phone calls, or Facebook messages from BuzzFeed News.
Armstrong’s ex-girlfriend, a 23-year-old from Toronto named Jupiter Jones, started dating him long-distance in October last year after connecting on TikTok. A few months later, she posted a photo of the two of them together to Instagram, tagging it with #CoupleGoals. Soon, she began receiving Instagram direct messages from other users alleging that Armstrong had been sending sexual messages to young girls on the platform. Jones provided BuzzFeed News with screenshots of these concerned messages from other users about Armstrong that she was receiving after posting videos about him to YouTube.
At the height of the backlash, Correll made a video in which she dressed up like Armstrong and dueted one of his videos. When his fans started defending him in the comment section, Correll responded, “He’s a child predator so...” Jones saw that video and reacted to it in one of her own, writing in the caption, “The amount of [shit] I just found out [today] about my time with [Armstrong] is staggering. I’m speechless.”
Jones is no longer dating Armstrong. At the height of the online backlash against him, she said it was impossible to tell which allegations were true and which were not.
“It was hard to discern who was actually genuine ... and who was just trying to get followers off of it,” she said. “When it's a trending topic, everybody's getting clout off of everything.”
“He didn't appear to be a 12-year-old”
In February a British charity released a report warning parents that predators were using TikTok to target users as young as 8 years old. That same month a 35-year-old Los Angeles man was arrested on suspicion of committing lewd acts on children; according to the Los Angeles Times, investigators accused him of using TikTok to initiate "'sexual and vulgar' conversations with at least 21 girls — some as young as 9 years old." In April, a BBC investigation found hundreds of sexual comments publicly posted to videos uploaded by teenagers and children. In April, India’s High Court ordered Google and Apple to pull TikTok from their respective app stores in India over concerns that it was exposing children to sexual predators and pornography. It was also briefly banned for similar reasons in Indonesia last year.
Because TikTok is so new — its current configuration isn’t even a year old yet — it hasn’t really been built into internet safety programs at the majority of school districts in the US. Internet safety consultant Rick Floyd, a former member of Greenville, South Carolina’s police department and the state attorney general's task force for computer forensics and child pornography, is a vocal advocate for teaching TikTok safety. He said TikTok is a mess because it encourages its users to prioritize engagement over safety.
“I know TikTok has some good settings, but only if they're implemented,” Floyd told BuzzFeed News. “Most of the children I talk to say they leave it open so that people can see their videos.”
The majority of TikTok’s privacy features have to be set by the user. For instance, a user can control whether their account is private. They can toggle who can see certain videos. They can set comment filters. They can even control who can duet with them. But a young user has to activate these features for any of them to work.
As part of his job with the Greenville school district, Floyd monitors the Chromebook activity of the students. That’s how he discovered seven middle schoolers communicating with the same Musical.ly user last year. The girls thought they were talking to a 12-year-old named Brandon who had cancer. Floyd thought they might be talking to someone else.
“He didn't appear to be a 12-year-old,” Floyd explained. “So we did some background checks [and] it did end up being — or appeared to be — an older person from Kentucky. That's when we turned it over to law enforcement.”
In March, TikTok announced a beefed-up “restricted mode" for 13-year-old users. The company said it’s using artificial intelligence to scan and block users younger than 13 from using the app. Floyd said that he’s met a lot of students who lie about being older to get on the app.
“I want them to know that as easy as it is for them to lie to be older, it's just as easy for people to lie to be younger,” Floyd said. “Anybody can be anybody on the internet.”
“He's still uploading”
TikTok users like Liz, Correll, and Jones say they aren’t hopeful that the company can properly moderate the app as it undergoes monstrous growth. Moderating a massive community at scale typically involves an increasing reliance on machine learning and content-policing algorithms. And as YouTube and Facebook have repeatedly shown, those don’t always work so well.
“It's kind of just whatever the algorithm catches now, instead of actual people moderating it,” Jones said.
Yet, there are people trying to police it — they just don’t work for TikTok. Which can make things extremely confusing when accusations start flying.
Last month, Caleb Zuchowski, a 19-year-old whose @calebcandance account has some 400,000 fans, was accused of sharing explicit photographs of a 15-year-old girl and sending inappropriate messages to 16-year-olds in a Discord server. Sebastian Kretzmann, a 21-year-old from New Orleans known as @radicalseb, was the first person to publish the screenshots of Zuchowski’s alleged messages.
"The app still isn't doing anything. It really isn't.”
“It's disgusting, especially for younger girls, like girls that don't have any power and they feel weak, so of course,” Kretzmann told BuzzFeed News. “I think we, as creators, have to start doing things because the app still isn't doing anything. It really isn't.”
After Kretzmann went public, the cycle of accusations began. Once again, screenshots were leaked and, once again, YouTube videos were made. One of the messages Zuchowski allegedly sent — a request for pictures of the young girls’ collarbones — became a meme. Twitter filled up with TikTok users saying they would report Zuchowski’s account. Zuchowski insisted that the allegations were false in a series of videos responding to the controversy.
Zuchowski told BuzzFeed News that the collarbone conversation on Discord was a joke between him and a 17-year-old girl he knows personally. He insists it was taken out of context and that no one made a big deal out of it until he became popular on TikTok. That’s when the screenshots began circulating.
“They waited until I had a huge fanbase and a voice like that to bring me down,” he said.
As for the nude photograph, he said it was a photo of an 18-year-old he was romantically connected to at the time and that — contrary to the rumors online that he had shared a nude photograph of the 18-year-old — the woman in the photo was actually wearing a T-shirt and underwear. Zuchowski provided BuzzFeed News with screenshots of the woman saying she was of legal age when she took the picture.
Kretzmann told BuzzFeed News they felt an obligation to warn TikTok users about Zuchowski because there appear to be no real checks on that sort of behavior; they said that sometimes it feels like TikTok isn’t really in control of its own app and they worry there’s nothing the company can do to really mitigate predation and abuse on its platform.
Said Kretzmann, “TikTok hasn’t done anything about [Zuchowski]. He's still uploading and everything.”
In perhaps the perfect encapsulation of TikTok’s predation problems and the murky teenage justice that has emerged around them, a week after their interview with BuzzFeed News, Kretzmann was accused by a group of young creators including Liz W. of sending sexual messages to underage fans.
Kaytlyn Stewart, a YouTuber and TikToker who goes by Drama Kween, collected all the accusations against Kretzmann and put them in a YouTube video that had racked up some 20,000 views as of this writing and inspired several other videos. It accuses Kretzmann of sexually harassing and sending explicit images to underage users.
Kretzmann addressed the allegations in a series of videos on their Instagram story, saying they were in a video call with friends when they made sexually explicit comments to a 15-year-old boy.
“I didn’t think that was going to make this person feel uncomfortable, because I’m friends with them and I’m just being myself in the friend group,” Kretzmann said in the video. “I feel completely disgusted and feel bad. I made people feel uncomfortable. What I said was wrong. And I feel bad about it.”
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Kretzmann claimed their comments were a crude joke that had purposefully been taken out of context from a group Instagram Live call that included a 15-year-old.
“This whole thing has blown out of hella proportion. The [accusations] were definitely for clout,” they said.
Regardless of the intent behind them, the accusations leveled against Kretzmann were enough to sour them on social media. They plan to delete all their accounts.
“I'm going back to film school,” they said. “I'm worrying about my real life. I can turn off the internet.” ●