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ABC takes aim at TikTok as platform moves mainstream


“We have introduced a notification system that provides more clarity to users about their content violations, which has reduced the rate of repeat violations and seen visits to our Community Guidelines page nearly triple. We also offer a way to appeal a video’s removal directly in our app and will restore content if we find it was incorrectly removed.”

On allegations the company has turned on permissions to collect users’ face and voice recognition data, which so far only applies to the United States and not Australia, TikTok ANZ general manager, Brett Armstrong, said: “TikTok is committed to both safeguarding user privacy and building a personalised experience that offers users meaningful choices over the data they share and with whom.

“We empower our community with a range of security and privacy controls to manage their online presence and decide the TikTok experience that’s right for them.”

The investigation comes as TikTok’s local team celebrate their one-year anniversary as the entertainment platform, best known for short-form video content and viral dance moves, seeks to steer further towards the Australian media and marketing mainstream.

While Four Corners will explore how TikTok sometimes serves up rogue content, this is not a problem unique to TikTok, but endemic to all social media platforms that rely on user-generated content.

YouTube has faced its own problems with disturbing videos targeting children, that were getting past content filters, showing cartoon characters like Peppa Pig or Mickey Mouse in violent or lewd situations.

While TikTok is owned by Chinese firm ByteDance, Mr Hunter and Mr Armstrong report to TikTok’s American leaders, not China, with LA-based TikTok chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas and fellow Aussie being a main point of contact and direction.

In August last year, the platform faced the threat of Instagram’s introduction of Reels in August 2020, a TikTok-esque video feature that some analysts predicted would be a killer move from the Facebook-owned competitor.

That reality has not eventuated. On this, Mr Hunter says “we felt flattered” but that TikTok remains unique in this market.

“One thing that you can’t emulate is the community we’ve got, and frankly, the creativity tools that exist within TikTok to allow anyone to make content and share that with the world, and our recommendation system that allows content to succeed without the need for followers. Creativity wins out.”

TikTok general manager Lee Hunter in Camperdown Park, Sydney.  Louise Kennerley

Despite concerns around brand safety and content moderation, Mr Armstrong and TikTok are successfully wooing Australian businesses, including Afterpay, Arnotts, Optus and The Athlete’s Foot, to spend their advertising dollars on the platform.

From a digital ad point of view, this is the kind of social proofing the company needs in order to lure more conservative clients away from using more traditional advertising channels.

Beyond making their own TikTok acounts and having a play around, brands big and small can buy three main ad formats from TikTok – “top view”, which is on TikTok’s homepage as a user logs in, #challenges, which jumps on the platform’s popular organic challenge format and allows brands to lead their own, and in-feed ads, that are auction-based, on-demand ad placements.

The cost of placing ads on TikTok has surged over the past 18 months as more and more Australians turn to the online world for entertainment, information and distraction.

Meanwhile, content innovations led by the TikTok Australia local team include having former prime minister Julia Gillard appear on the platform for a serious interview after users resurfaced her infamous “misogyny” speech on the app, and an appearance by NSW chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant in the wake of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation proliferating online.

Despite successes in convincing brands of the benefits of being on the app, TikTok has made some errors when pitching the platform to advertising agencies by drawing on out-of-date case studies in pitches – like the Fleetwood Mac “Dreams” cranberry juice video meme – or its support team not being able to troubleshoot advertiser questions about the app’s features or problems effectively.

“We’ve launched and ramped up in such quick speed,” Mr Armstrong said.

“This is one of the focuses for us – making sure we get a consistent baseline of expertise and knowledge. The good thing is that we’re not doing this on our own island, we’ve got a really good global network of people who have mastered this, and we now have pretty comprehensive training.“

Mr Armstrong said TikTok is focused on innovation and developing a uniquely Australian arm of the business.

“I don’t want us to be a market that just takes everything from the global business,” he said.

“We have a big opportunity here, we have amazing talent, we have amazing, progressive advertisers, we need to be making sure that we are identifying those brands, partners, creators, and entertainment platforms that we can partner with and do big innovative things. That’s something for the next year I want to make sure we pick those opportunities.”

TikTok is changing online media and creativity

Irrespective of former US President Donald Trump talks of platform bans to fears of unjustified data mining, San Francisco-based technology and media investor and advisor Eugene Wei says TikTok is permanently transforming the nature of online creativity, from it’s popular duet-function to its taste-optimisation algorithms.

TikTok Australia New Zealand head of music Ollie Wards, who was previously in charge of the tunes at youth public radio station Triple J, noted that changes to the music industry are the most potent example of TikTok’s cultural influence beyond the app.

“TikTok is taking artists that otherwise might not have had inroads or been prolific or successful in the charts and give them a chance to be discovered, and lots of people to listen to their music,” he said.

“People within the industry are recognising it, and definitely music fans are as well, because people find music on TikTok that they then go and listen to on other platforms, like Spotify or YouTube.”

Mr Wei, whose unconventional career has included seven years as a senior product manager at Amazon and time as the head of video at Facebook’s virtual reality hardware wing Occulus, argued that TikTok has nailed the delivery of “high-cadence pleasure” content that is short, highly addictive, and fast-paced.

“A lot of TikTok content generates a Pavlovian response in you, because you hear the song, and immediately, if you’ve watched enough TikTok, you know what’s going to come, because the song and often the meme are intertwined,” Mr Wei said.

“You know the pleasure centres are going to be tickled a little bit further into the song with the next version of the video – you know when there’s going to be the transition, or the drop, or the punchline, and you’re waiting to see what it’s going to be.”



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