EXCLUSIVE: Charity urges TikTok brands to use ‘collective power’ against online harms

A UK charity has urged brands advertising or selling their products on TikTok to use their “collective power” to push back against online harms on the platform.

5Rights Foundation works to ensure that children and young people have access to the same protections online that they are afforded offline.

Duncan McCann, head of accountability at the organisation, told FStech that while brands and retailers are concerned with online harms and actively talking about issues such as inappropriate product placements or controversial content, there's a sense that companies feel that they are prisoners to platforms like TikTok because they are one of the most valuable and important segments to target.

But the charity sees it very differently, with McCann explaining that if businesses were not spending their money on digital advertising then companies like TikTok wouldn’t be designed the way they are or be the behemoths that they are today.

"I'd like [brands] to flip the dial on the way they think about their relationship with these platforms, which is to actually say we're funding you and we're giving you the money so we want to set our terms rather than what seems to happen, which is more the other way round," he said. "I think bigger brands could definitely take a more a public position on this."

The comments come as the video-hosting app faces backlash over alleged harmful content on the platform.

In November last year, research by Amnesty International claimed that the app’s algorithmic content recommender system exposes children and young adults with pre-existing mental health challenges to serious risks of harm.

The organisation says that young people are being drawn into “rabbit holes” of potentially harmful content, including videos that romanticise and encourage depressive thinking, self-harm and suicide.

McCann says that brands have a "collective power" which the charity is keen to see them utilise more; instead it gets the sense that they feel "trapped and almost imprisoned" in a system whereby they have to engage because that's where their audience is.

The head of accountability gave the example of Mastercard and Visa blocking their customers from using their credit or debt cards on Pornhub following allegations that the website hosted videos of child abuse.

"Pornhub is one of the biggest adult sites in the world, and it's definitely not perfect now, but who kind of forced it to change fundamentally in terms of what videos it hosts and how it operates, was not a legislature, not a regulator, not a court, it was Visa and MasterCard saying if you don't make these changes we are going to stop payments from coming to your platform and indeed they threatened that," he said.

Retail Systems has approached TikTok for comment.

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