Black creators on TikTok are saying their accounts have been banned for reasons they say are unwarranted or just perplexing. They believe that either the platform's automation has been erroneously flagging their content, or users mass-reported them as a form of harassment.
Some accounts were banned after creators said they received racist and threatening messages. Those affected told BuzzFeed News they want the platform to do better to protect Black creators, especially after announcing their Black Creators incubator program this month.
In response to these incidents, spokespeople for TikTok told BuzzFeed News the company is "committed to seeing that our policies and practices are fair and equitable."
In September, 22-year-old Cahleb E. Derry posted a TikTok to thousands of followers on his original account @cahlebd. He joked that "a cultural difference between white and Black people...[is] the idea that white people do not use an exfoliant in the shower," he said.
Derry added that it's something he's joked about with his Black and non-Black friends, who've found it funny and oftentimes true.
The video almost instantly started going viral. He suspected that it was probably promoted to people's For You page, and a large creator at the time with over 1.8 million followers then jokingly responded to his video, only amplifying the audience. (That duet was later deleted because of the harassment Derry received, he noted.)
At the time, Derry said he also started to receive disparaging comments, mostly from accounts that seemed to belong to white people who did not see any humor in his video. Derry said some comments escalated to calling him "the problem," and even private messages calling him the n-word and a "slave." One person, he said, threatened to hang him.
"I was really terrified that this would escalate to me being doxxed on all my social media like other creators I know," he said. But before he could worry about his safety, he said he received a notification on TikTok alerting him that his account was banned permanently.
Derry told BuzzFeed News he is "positive" that his account triggered a ban because of the harassment he received from white supremacists. It happened only 30 minutes after he posted the joke.
"I imagine the people mass reporting my account reported me for some kind of racial harassment since my videos referenced white people, systemic racism, homophobia, etc," he said. "I do not understand how TikTok could see the videos on my account, and see the accounts that were commenting 'I would hang you'” and think my account was the problem."
As of Wednesday, Derry's original account is still locked. Like others in this story, he attempted to appeal the ban and gave TikTok all of the screenshots of his original video, the racist harassment, and threats, which he also provided to BuzzFeed News.
He said he eventually received a conclusive email from TikTok saying it "reviewed" his appeal and his "violation" stands.
Derry made a second account to speak about what happened. Derry told BuzzFeed News that he feels "powerless," and that the heart of this issue is not about his own TikTok account. It is that he believes a mob online successfully silenced him. He thinks TikTok is not doing enough to look at their own algorithm or the community it's fostering.
Something similar happened to Minnie Parks, 22. Last Friday, she told BuzzFeed News her original account @minnieparks98 was also suddenly banned. It had almost 200,000 followers. (Her account has since been reinstated.)
"My account got banned without reason or warning," she said. "All I do is simply educate and respond to racism and hate. And a lot of people don't like that."
Parks posts frequently about racial injustices, which has also drawn a mob of people harassing her constantly. She said she began actively reporting some of the most serious messages, including death threats, that she gets. However, Parks believes that led TikTok to banning her account instead — either erroneously or because harassers also mass-reported her account. She received an email from the company saying her page was in violation of "hateful behavior," which she finds ironic.
"I call out racism every day and my videos get taken down for 'speech' or harassment or and bullying but the people I call out still have their pages and accounts still up," she wrote to TikTok in one of her attempts to appeal the ban.
Siete White, who's also 22 and whose TikToks were featured in a previous BuzzFeed News story, experienced a more puzzling situation with her ban. Her TikTok account, which had over 700,000 followers, was also banned suddenly last week while she was livestreaming the Biden inauguration.
She said she was leading a meditation during the historic event when her stream was abruptly cut off. "I got a notification saying I violated community guidelines," White said. "I was taken aback because none of my content has come close to anything hateful ... I don’t know if anyone reported [my livestream,] but it was very, very strange."
Representatives at TikTok would not comment on record about White's supposed violations, or what happened to her account, but White insists there was no "misinformation" or anything inflammatory she said during her livestream. After a few attempts to appeal the ban, she got her account reinstated on Monday, however, even more strangely, all of her previous videos are now labeled with a "community guideline violation."
She even received notifications saying that her livestream contained "serious pornography" and that she is now temporarily banned from posting until Feb. 2.
"It's very frustrating and very disheartening," she said.
"It feels as though externally they’re parading like 'we love our Black creators and we’re here for you.' But internally it feels like a large issue with something with their content moderation that’s very harshly policing Black, indigenous, and people of color’s content, and allowing the actual harmful content to slip through the cracks."
BuzzFeed News reached out to TikTok to ask what happened with these individual cases.
In an email statement to BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for TikTok said, "TikTok is a community with millions of diverse creators, and the platform wouldn't be what it is today without the range of voices and experiences our creators bring. We're committed to seeing that our policies and practices are fair and equitable."
White and others told BuzzFeed News they want the platform to build a better system to "denounce white supremacy."
"TikTok’s community-based algorithm, while one of the best parts of the app, is super dangerous. You may end up sharing your words into an echo chamber with people who agree and validate you, or, within moments, have your videos be shared directly with those who literally oppose your humanity. There is no middle ground," said Derry.
"Everyone knows Black culture, trends, and humor keeps these apps and the world going, yet we are treated as second-class citizens on those platforms. Institutions like TikTok have to vocally denounce white supremacy and stop treating acts of white supremacy as one-off, isolated incidents."
The number of viewers of Siete White's inauguration livestream was misstated in an earlier version of this post.