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Like Other New Social Media Platforms Focused On Growth, TikTok Is Clumsily Regulating Sketchy Ads

In this week's newsletter: Questionable ads slip through TikTok's "strict" vetting policies, and Lauren shares what she's learned about the complicated politics of influencers and body image on social media.

Posted on January 15, 2021, at 8:00 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

I am once again asking you to pick users over ads

TikTok

If you’re seeing more ads on your For You page on TikTok, it’s not just you. Over the past few weeks, I’ve started to notice more too. Sometimes I’m able to watch just two native videos before another ad comes up.

TikTok has had a meteoric rise in popularity during the pandemic, so it makes sense it is trying to cash in. But we’re once again seeing a social media company regulate its content seemingly as an afterthought. (If you recall, it took several years for Instagram to regulate influencer promo disguised as organic content.)

I get it: Saying no to money is hard. But TikTok is apparently letting some sketchy ads on its platform.

Last weekend, I noticed a video that kept reappearing on my FYP posted under different usernames that seemed to be made up of random characters. @mnfrnti.xyz was one; @sdgfh was another. The commercial was immediately dubious. It showed a montage of middle-aged people using a cream that miraculously removed their under-eye puffiness. When I say “miraculously,” I mean it looked like they literally took the blending tool in Adobe Photoshop under their eyes. I clicked on the link attached to the TikTok video, and it got sketchier. It made all kinds of claims about reducing wrinkles and restoring skin firmness and with several links to “rush” a “free” trial of the cream — all you need to do is pay for shipping!!!

TikTok

The most outrageous part was a fake article the ad included from a made-up parenting blog with the headline “$3 Moisturizer That Removes the Signs of Aging Gets Biggest Deal in Shark Cage History.”

“Shark Cage,” as in a not-quite/imposter of Shark Tank. LOL!

The whole ruse was so low-grade scammy that it made me laugh, but I also couldn’t believe it had passed TikTok’s smell test. The app does have an official “Ad Review Process,” by the way.

I saw the programmatic ad a few more times on my feed before reaching out to TikTok about it. On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the company told me they had removed the ad from the app and banned the advertiser. Additionally, they provided this statement:

“TikTok has strict policies to protect users from fake, fraudulent, or misleading content, including ads. Advertiser accounts and ad content are held to these policies and must follow our Community Guidelines, Advertising Guidelines, and Terms of Service. These ads have been removed from TikTok and the advertiser account has been banned. We have measures in place to detect and remove fraudulent ads, and advertising content passes through multiple levels of verification before receiving approval.”

While I support their quick response to my inquiry, and pulling the ad down, I wonder how “strict” their policies and vetting measures are. The wrinkle-removing cream video and the attached promotional material were comically deceptive. Who knows how many FYPs it reached and, my god, how many people might have put in their credit card information to receive the “free” trial.

I understand automation is how most internet companies manage ads — I mean, it is at BuzzFeed. But for how prevalent social media apps are these days, especially TikTok, it’s even more important to try to put users first.

—Tanya Chen

Lauren gives her thoughts on her piece about the politics of influencers and body image

Being an influencer means being under constant public scrutiny, even in moments when you’d rather not be. That seems especially true when the subject of weight comes up.

Weight is a weighty issue and this week I wrote about the complex conversations that arise when influencers and celebrities choose to diet or lose weight, and share that with their audience. I spoke to some amazing fat, Black influencers about their reactions to Lizzo’s detox diet that she shared on Instagram, as well as Ashley Nell Tipton, a Project Runway winner who felt some backlash after getting weight-loss surgery.

I have to admit, I went into this with a lot of personal feelings that I tried to push aside as I did my reporting. I’m far from being a bona fide influencer, but I’ve got a few followers here and there. I’m also fat. That’s something that I’m pretty comfy with, and I’ve been known to post fat-positive content on social media, but this is where things get complicated. If I post a picture of myself in a bikini on Instagram, is that inherently fat-positive because I’m existing without shame? Does that make me some sort of role model or spokesperson? Am I part of a movement? And if I ever bow to diet culture, as we all inevitably do at one time or another, have I betrayed that movement?

I’d argue that being fat and happy is political by default, through no fault of our own, because of how fatness is still largely seen as negative. But this is where the influencer conversation comes in.

When someone like Adele, Lizzo, or a plus-size influencer engages in diet culture in whatever way, they immediately come under scrutiny for betraying what “body positivity” is. But is that fair? Just because they exist as people who are fat and refusing to live in shame, why do we expect them to always be perfect examples of that?

One of the people I interviewed was Da’Shaun Harrison, the managing editor of Wear Your Voice magazine and the author of an upcoming book about where fatness and Black identities meet. We talked about how people project ideas onto Lizzo, even though she has never positioned herself as a fat liberationist.

“She has always only been someone who is quote-unquote ‘body positive.’ And even that has been very limited, because so much of it was just around her celebrating her own body, and allowing herself to not be held up by the fact that she is a fat woman, a fat Black woman in particular,” they told me. “So to me, the joy I get from Lizzo is witnessing her live in her body.”

Lizzo being a Black woman also ties into what we ask of her, Harrison said.

“They make those of us who are fat Black folks into their mammies or their caretakers or their mules for their own politics,” they said. “They have no room to fuck up or to be messy or to live outside of a politic that was projected onto us in the first place.”

The point here is that, yes, talking about weight loss publicly can be harmful, both to plus-size people and to those with eating disorders, which are often the same people. But we also need to give room to people to screw up and to identify ways to talk about weight with harm reduction and anti-racism in mind.

I don’t have a perfect solution, and all this is made yet more complex by the failings of diet culture (diets don’t work!) and fraught conversations about the notion of health.

What I learned from all this is individual choices aren’t really the issue here, but rather the problem is anti-fatness and the way it seeps into all of our lives.

—Lauren Strapagiel

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