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Bloomberg Businessweek (December 5, 2022)

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Год выпуска: December 5, 2022

Автор: Bloomberg Businessweek Europe

Жанр: Бизнес

Издательство: «Bloomberg Businessweek Europe»

Формат: PDF (журнал на английском языке)

Количество страниц: 64


The Tragedies of TikTok

The 5-year-old boy’s panicked cries echoed down the hallway of the Arroyos’ three-bedroom clapboard house in Milwaukee. It was February 2021, and he’d been playing with his 9-year-old sister, Arriani, before bedtime.

Their mother was at a Bible study class, and their father was in his basement workshop, out of earshot. The boy had watched Arriani climb atop a toy chest, wrap a metal dog leash around her neck and hook the buckle to the wardrobe door hinge. Now she was hanging 2 feet from the ground, kicking and desperately scratching at her neck.
A few days later, after Arriani was buried wearing a princess dress and tiara, her nails freshly painted, the boy told his parents what had happened. They were playing a game, he said, like they saw on TikTok.
The game had a name: the blackout challenge. Kids around the world were choking themselves with household items until they blacked out, filming the adrenaline rush they got regaining consciousness and then posting the videos on social media. It’s a modern incarnation of choking dares that have been around for decades, only now they’re being delivered to children by powerful social media algorithms and reaching those too young to fully grasp the risk.
There was no press coverage of Arriani’s death, and TikTok didn't learn about it for months. But the company was aware that kids not old enough to have profiles on its app were dying doing the blackout challenge. In the weeks before, TikTok’s trust and safety team, which works to protect users and defend the company’s reputation, had begun investigating a similar incident in Palermo, Sicily. A ю-year-old girl, Antonella Sicomero, had been found hanging from a towel rack in January with a bathrobe belt around her neck. Antonella s parents told local media she’d died playing “an extreme game on TikTok.” The Palermo prosecutor’s office opened an investigation, and Italy’s privacy watchdog ordered the social network to remove any user in the country whose age it couldn’t verify as being over 13, alleging that it was failing to abide by its own rule to keep preteens off the app.
A small group from trust and safety spent days reviewing every clip Antonella had recently watched, according to two team members who saw a summary of the internal report into her death and requested anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to the media. There were a lot of videos: The report said Antonella, whose school was closed because of Covid-19, was on the app as much as 10 hours a day. The group also learned that, like many kids her age, Antonella had claimed she was older than 13 when she created her account.
The team reported finding no evidence that TikTok’s algorithm had recommended the challenge to Antonella. That was a relief to senior executives, the team members say. A crisis management strategy was drafted to distance TikTok from the tragedy, painting it as an industrywide issue. The company told journalists the challenge “had never been a trend” on the platform and said users learned about it "from sources other than TikTok.”
TikTok has continued with the same message, including in a recent statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, as children too young to be on social media have kept dying. The blackout challenge has been linked to the deaths of at least 15 kids age 12 or younger in the past 18 months, according to data Businessweek compiled from news reports, court records and interviews with family members. At least five children age 13 and 14 also died in that time. Headlines in the wake of the deaths frequently singled out TikTok, but police departments denied Freedom of Information Act requests to see incident reports that might help prove which platform was involved, if any.
By the time of Arriani’s death, executives were scrambling to figure out how they could better detect and kick out children who’d lied about their age. There are no effective mechanisms to block underage users from social media platforms, an issue that’s plagued them since their invention. In 2021, TikTok met with at least two providers of facial age-estimation software, which can distinguish between a child and a teenager with relative accuracy, according to people familiar with the talks. These machine-learning programs scan faces for clues about a person’s age, and the companies say the systems work without identifying individuals or storing any data, which could raise privacy concerns.
Even so, a top executive at TikTok nixed the deals, one of the people familiar with the talks says. The company, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., had been accused by regulators and politicians around the world of being a surveillance tool for the Chinese government and was facing a possible ban in the US, which is still under review. The executive, the person says, feared that using biometric data would stoke suspicions that China was spying on child users. Other social media platforms, including Twitter, Instagram and photo-sharing app BeReal, have since teamed with these age-estimation software providers...

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