TikTok users who felt compelled to donate digital gifts to struggling Syrian refugee streamers may have unintentionally helped line the social media company’s pocketbooks.
A new BBC investigation found that even before accounting for costs associated with money transfers and so-called “TikTok middlemen,” the live streaming refugees only ever received around 30% of proceeds from the donations. TikTok told the BBC the company’s commission is less than the remaining 70% but would not provide a concrete figure. The company did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment seeking more details.
The investigation highlights a troubling, uniquely dystopian digital age issue TikTok calls “exploitative begging.” Though users can’t send direct cash payments to the refugee they can send “LIVE Gifts” which streamers can convert into TikTok “diamonds.” Those diamonds can then be exchanged for real money. Those digital gifts range in value from a few cents to more extravagant options like a virtual lion reportedly worth around $500.
Reporters from the BBC claim they followed around 30 accounts posting from Syrian refugee camps and used a computer program to monitor when they received gifts. Some of those accounts reportedly received more than $1,000 worth of gifts per hour, however the streamers reportedly only ended up seeing a sliver of that amount. TikTok reportedly banned several dozen accounts featuring child begging following the report.
The investigation claims to have discovered so-called “TikTok middlemen’’ who work with agencies affiliated with TikTok to provide refugees with smartphones and other equipment needed to livestream. Those agencies, spread out around the world, are also known as “live streaming guilds,” according to the report. Members of those guilds told the BBC they receive a commission from TikTok based on the amount of gifts received and the duration of livestreams. In a move seemingly reminiscent of Facebook’s notorious Free Basics efforts in much of the developing world last decade, the BBC alleges the middlemen are part of TikTok strategy to beef up users and increase the amount of time spent on apps.
TikTok did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment regarding the alleged middlemen.
BBC reporters sent a Syrian journalist posing as a refugee live streamer $106 in gifts in an effort to see what percentage of donations refugees actually keep. The reporters’ account balance sat at $33 following the test. The funds, however, continued to trickle away further still. Money transfers reportedly skimmed the remaining funds by around 10%. The middlemen reportedly then took 35% of the remaining balance.
In other words, for $106 worth of gifts, the streamer only walked away with $19.
“When I look at TikTok’s website, they publicly state that their number one priority is to ensure their community is treated with fundamental dignity and respect and what I just saw is exactly the opposite of that,” Access Now MENA Policy Manager Marwa Fatafta said in an interview. Fatafta believes the report shows evidence TikTok’s violating its own policies around preventing harm of minors on the site.
“TikTok has a responsibility under the U.N guiding principles on business and human rights,” Fatafta added. “It’s hard to see how TikTok is ensuring that the rights and dignity of these communities is being ensured.”