TikTok is turning a pretty profit off of Syrian refugees, according to a BBC investigation published Wednesday which found that the company skimmed as much as 70 percent of the livestream charitable donations generated by refugees and children making pleas across the social media platform.
Not only is TikTok taking a huge chunk of the proceeds off the top. Investigators found that TikTok leverages regional “middlemen” staffed by corporate affiliates from China and the Middle East to help promote such content. Consequently, when the donations finally reach their intended recipient, it’s often only a small sliver of the original payment.
The team followed 30 TikTok accounts for five months, many of whom received as much as $1,000 an hour. One BBC test donation of $106 was devalued 69 percent by TikTok immediately, leaving only $33. However, an additional 10 percent was taken by the local money exchange while an additional 35 percent was given to the “TikTok middlemen” from the remainder. Of the original $106 donation, the Syrian family received only $19.
When asked for comment, TikTok told the BBC that they had banned all the accounts in question and argued that their commission from digital gifts was far less than 70 percent, though they didn’t specify a number. “This type of content is not allowed on our platform, and we are further strengthening our global policies around exploitative begging.”
That doesn’t appear to be an exhaustive or permanent ban. Business Insider followed up shortly thereafter and found another five recorded livestreams of refugees begging for help. One of the videos featured an elderly man screaming repeatedly, “Help me. I need help.”
The Chinese app is the world’s fastest-growing social media platform. TikTok made over $4 billion in revenue in 2021 with 2022 projections forecasted to hit $12 billion.
Last year Michael Beckerman, a company executive, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Beckerman struggled to clarify the company’s information-sharing policy (including its collection and use of biometric data such as face and voiceprints) despite pointed questions from Senator Ted Cruz about the extent of the company’s relationship with the CCP.
President Donald Trump banned TikTok over privacy concerns and its ambiguous relationship with the Chinese government. That order was rescinded by President Joe Biden.