TikTok has announced an incoming tightening of its policies around political accounts using its video-sharing platform, such as those belonging to political parties, politicians and governments.
The changes look intended to limit, er, political grifting (for want of a better term) — with an incoming ban on use of monetization features (like tipping, gifting and ecommerce) or on using the video-sharing platform to solicit campaign donations directly.
Political accounts will also be ineligible for TikTok’s Creator Fund, as well as being unable to access ad features by default.
A spokeswoman for the company said the changes are designed to promote a positive environment and reduce polarization in line with its mission of being an entertainment platform. TikTok said the changes will roll out and/or start being enforced in the “coming weeks”. It also confirmed the new policies are being applied globally.
In a blog post about the policy update, it added:
TikTok is an entertainment platform where people come to share their stories, and understand other people’s experiences too. Those stories can touch on all aspects of their lives, including current events like elections and political issues. As we have set out before, we want to continue to develop policies that foster and promote a positive environment that brings people together, not divide them.
While TikTok has banned political advertising since 2019 it is going a little further now — saying it wants to build on that prohibition on “political content in ads” by applying ad restrictions at an account level.
“This means accounts belonging to politicians and political parties will automatically have their access to advertising features turned off, which will help us more consistently enforce our existing policy,” it explained.
TikTok notes there may still be “limited” situations where it will allow political accounts to advertise — such as for raising awareness of public health reasons. But it said government organizations will be “required” to work with a company representative in order to run such campaigns, so it will be vetting all requests.
“We recognize that there will be occasions where governments may need access to our ads services, such as to support public health and safety and access to information, like advertising Covid-19 booster campaigns,” it noted, adding: “We will continue to allow government organizations to advertise in limited circumstances, and they will be required to be working with a TikTok representative.”
The changes regarding solicitation for campaign fundraising will see TikTok disallowing content that makes direct appeals for donations.
TikTok has given examples of “a video from a politician asking for donations”, or “a political party directing people to a donation page on their website” as types of fundraising content that it will not allow under the new policy. But it remains to be seen whether politicians will find creative/coded ways to encourage fundraising on TikTok that workaround these limits. As ever, a policy is only as strong as the enforcement it receives.
“TikTok is first and foremost an entertainment platform, and we’re proud to be a place that brings people together over creative and entertaining content,” the company added in the blog post. “By prohibiting campaign fundraising and limiting access to our monetization features, we’re aiming to strike a balance between enabling people to discuss the issues that are relevant to their lives while also protecting the creative, entertaining platform that our community wants.”
It’s not clear how much political grifting is going on on TikTok’s platform currently. Asked whether there are a substantial number of political accounts using monetization features like tipping etc, a spokeswoman for the company declined to specify, saying the company does not release information about specific user demographics.
While TikTok is clearly very keen for its platform to be seen as ‘just a bit of harmless fun’, it can’t avoid being a political ‘hot potato’ topic in and of itself.
Lawmakers and intelligence agencies in the West have — for years — raised a range of concerns linked to TikTok being owned by a Chinese company and thus subject to wide-ranging national security laws which give the Chinese state sweeping powers to access data held by tech firms. Hence it’s invested in opening so-called ‘transparency centers‘ and on moving US users’ data to Oracle servers (as well as announcing date localization plans in the EU, too). Though concerns persist about China-based employees’ ability to access data on Western users.
TikTok’s platform has also faced sporadic accusations that it censors views not aligned with the Chinese Communist Party — although it refutes the claim. Other political fears the platform raises in the West relate to its ability to track users, given how much user data it captures (including concerns about biometric data), as well as wider worries about its ability to influence public opinion via the application of its powerful content-sorting algorithms. The fear — or, well paranoia — here is that TikTok is a wildly successful foreign influence op brainwashing Western kids…
Only last month, the British parliament closed an account on TikTok days after opening it after it faced criticism from senior MPs and peers who called the data security risks attached to using the app “considerable”. So it may take more than a few policy tweaks for TikTok to rise above the political fray.
This report was updated with responses from TikTok