As TikTok’s popularity and earnings soar, the company has decided to crack down on political content creators—sometimes with thousands of followers—who violate the app’s policies against paid political ads. TikTok says it has been aware of the problem since 2020, but it became an issue of public concern in 2021. That’s when the Washington Post and The Mozilla Foundation uncovered TikToks from both left- and right-wing content creators that appeared to be violating FTC guidelines, which require, at a minimum, that posts must be marked with an “#ad” hashtag.
TikTok has always left it up to content creators to self-disclose when they conduct deals with business partners off-site. However, in June 2021, the company made it easier to flag posts as ads (or “branded content”) in an effort to encourage more self-disclosure. Mozilla considered this a step in the right direction, but it recommended that TikTok work harder ahead of the next elections to promptly remove undisclosed paid political ads.
This week, TikTok appears to have taken that advice, with its head of US safety, Eric Han, announcing that the company will remove any content that violates TikTok’s rules on paid political ads. To prepare creators for stricter enforcement, Han said TikTok will post an educational series in its Creator Portal and host briefings with content creators to ensure “the rules of the road are abundantly clear when it comes to paid content around elections.”
“TikTok does not allow paid political ads, and that includes content influencers are paid to create,” Han wrote. “We work to educate creators about the responsibilities they have to abide by [in] our Community Guidelines and Advertising policies as well as FTC guidelines.”
The content creator loophole
TikTok banned paid political ads on its platform in 2019, but according to Reuters, content creators became a “loophole” that campaign strategists could exploit to spread messaging on the platform. It’s not just a TikTok problem, either. The Washington Post reported in 2020 that conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA “was recruiting and paying young people” on Facebook and Twitter “to pump out false messages about voter fraud, the coronavirus, and Joe Biden in order to bolster Trump’s re-election campaign.”
Mozilla said that it has become “urgent” for popular platforms like TikTok to change how they moderate content, or they risk ongoing undetected violations by bad actors. In 2018, for example, Mozilla exposed tax filings showing that TPUSA spent millions of dollars developing services that include “influencer media programs” with hundreds of content creators. The tax documents indicated that these funds are dedicated to ensuring the organization’s “long-term vitality.” Mozilla also found a small grassroots progressive political action committee called “The 99 Problems” that it said paid creators to spread pro-Biden messaging without disclosing that the posts were sponsored.
TPUSA and The 99 Problems didn’t immediately respond to questions from Ars asking if anything has changed about how they run influencer media programs.
In a press briefing described in a Reuters report, Hans said that TikTok is adding internal teams to help spot content violations. TikTok will also continue depending on outside reports from researchers and media outlets to track the scope of the issue. Experts say TikTok should share more data to support those efforts.
This week, TikTok also announced that it would work with accredited fact-checking organizations to prevent election misinformation from spreading in both unmarked ads and other general posts. Han said that TikTok’s policy is to restrict any content that is being fact-checked from its recommended “For You” pages.
TikTok did not immediately respond to Ars’ request for comment.