Saturday, July 13, 2024
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As Syrian refugees continue to endure more than a decade of displacement and misery, TikTok, the world’s fastest growing social media network, finds a way to profit from the families living in camps and begging for money to survive. A recent operation undertaken by the BBC has uncovered how the Chinese video-based platform has been running an organized money-making scheme based on taking a percentage of donations sent to livestreaming families in the Syrian camps begging for help.

As the world becomes increasingly reliant on technology, starving families and ailing children in Syrian camps are being forced to resort to livestreaming on social media app TikTok in order to plead for digital gifts with a cash value. According to a report by the BBC, some streams were earning up to $1,000 per hour, yet the families in the camps were only receiving a small fraction of that amount. TikTok has stated that it will take prompt action against what it calls “exploitative begging,” and that this type of content is not allowed on its platform. However, the company declined to confirm the exact percentage of commission it takes from digital gifts, only stating that it is significantly less than 70%.

The trend of families in Syrian camps livestreaming on TikTok was facilitated by so-called “middlemen,” who provided the necessary equipment and access to TikTok accounts through agencies affiliated with the app in China and the Middle East. These agencies are part of TikTok’s global strategy to recruit livestreamers and keep users on the app for longer periods of time. The middlemen prefer to use British SIM cards, as the TikTok algorithm suggests content based on the geographic origin of a user’s phone number, and they believe that people from the UK are the most generous gifters.

The gifts, which range in cost from a few cents to around $500, are virtual but cost viewers real money and can be withdrawn from the app as cash. For five months, the BBC followed 30 TikTok accounts broadcasting live from Syrian camps and used a computer program to gather information, finding that viewers were often donating digital gifts worth up to $1,000 per hour to each account. However, families in the camps reported receiving only a small fraction of these sums.

In order to track where the money from the gifts was going, the BBC conducted an experiment in which a reporter in Syria obtained an account and went live, while BBC staff in London sent TikTok gifts worth $106 from another account. At the end of the livestream, the balance of the Syrian test account was $33, with TikTok having taken 69% of the value of the gifts. The remaining $33 was reduced by an additional 10% when withdrawn from a local money transfer shop, and TikTok middlemen took 35% of that amount, leaving the family with just $19.

Many of the middlemen stated that they were being supported by “live agencies” in China, who work directly with TikTok. These agencies, known as “livestreaming guilds,” are contracted by TikTok to help content creators produce more appealing livestreams and are paid a commission based on the duration of the livestreams and the value of gifts received. The emphasis on duration often leads to TikTokers, including children in Syrian camps, going live for extended periods of time.

Despite TikTok’s rules stating that users must have 1,000 followers before going live, must not directly solicit for gifts, and must “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors on the platform, the BBC found that when it used the in-app system to report 30 accounts featuring children begging, TikTok claimed that there had been no violation of its policies. After the BBC contacted the company directly for comment, TikTok banned all of the accounts, stating that it was “deeply concerned” by the information and allegations brought to its attention and had taken prompt and rigorous action.

As a potential solution to the issue of families in Syrian camps resorting to begging on TikTok Live for financial support, the BBC reached out to several charities working in the region. One local charity, Takaful Alsham, offered to provide basic supplies to the families for the next three months, as well as help the children find schools and cover their educational expenses. However, for many families living in the camps, there are few options for making money aside from begging online. Despite efforts to provide alternative means of support, hundreds of families continue to go live on TikTok every day, and a majority of the donated money continues to go to TikTok.

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