OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND: TIKTOK’S LACK OF VISIBILITY FOR BIPOC CREATORS

2020 has been a year in which the world has embraced movements that bring light to the various inequalities and injustices BIPOC communities have been facing for centuries. Social media has always been an outlet for uplifting and recognizing aspiring creators, and with the rise of attention toward movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement has come attention toward the fact that creators of color do not receive the same amount of recognition when releasing content that white creators do. This stems from the undeniable fact that social media platforms employ racial biases when choosing who to feature on their site’s most prominent pages.

New users scrolling the TikTok “For You” page for the first time are met with the fastest growing faces of social media’s fastest growing platform: Charli and Dixie D’amelio, Addison Rae, and content houses that display no semblance of diversity. The explanation for this boils down to the simple fact that the common characteristics of white, conventionally attractive people is prioritized by the app– and studies have shown that this is perpetuated by multiple algorithms that run TikTok. 

Charli D'Amelio Addresses Backlash to Family Dinner Video with Personal  Chef | PEOPLE.com
photo of Charli D’amelio

In February of 2020, Marc Faddoul, AI researcher at UC Berkeley School of Information concluded via study that TikTok recommends accounts of creators of the same race, age, or have the same facial characteristics as people users already follow. Faddoul tested this theory by creating a completely new TikTok account and following various people he encountered. Wired explains the study: “Following the account of a black woman led to recommendations for three more black women. It gets weirdly specific – Faddoul found that hitting follow on an Asian man with dyed hair gave him more Asian men with dyed hair, and the same thing happened for men with visible disabilities.” While TikTok defends this part of its algorithm by chalking it up to “user behavior,” the issue of racial bias comes into play when circling back to the influencers that fill the For You Page. If a new user were to follow the people shown most often on their For You Page, which are often White, conventionally attractive creators, they would be recommended more White, conventionally attractive creators, creating a cycle of prioritization of influencers that fit a certain mold. The issue with this algorithm is that rather than recommending accounts based on similar content or target age groups, it is solely appearance driven and makes way for the neglect of BIPOC creators who often have to put in ten times the effort as their White counterparts for their content to be recognized. This puts White influencers at an advantage when it comes to being offered jobs and opportunities outside of TikTok that display their talents and translate to money for those creators. 

A leading example of how this algorithm leads to an unfair advantage for White creators is the rise of fame of TikTok’s most followed influencer, Charli D’amelio. While having received initial fame and recognition for doing various short dances exclusive to the app, her rise to stardom is mostly attributed to the popular dance known as the “Renegade.” In late 2019, TikTok users everywhere jumped at the chance to record themselves doing the dance to post on their accounts– at school, in grocery stores, in parking lots, etc. For the entirety of this era on TikTok and some of 2020, the platform’s most famous type of video was attributed to Charli D’amelio. She was already a popular creator that all users could find the appeal in, and for months the fact that the dance was not her own was overlooked.

“Renegade” can be accredited to 14 year-old Black dancer Jalaiah Harmon. The dance originated on Harmon’s Funimate and Instagram, but by the time it was brought to TikTok some of the dance’s defining moves had been changed and Harmon was no longer receiving credit for creating the dance that has acted as one of the largest features of the face of TikTok. Harmon’s lack of visibility and recognition on the platform shows a direct connection between being denied credit and being denied opportunities.

While D’amelio reaped the rewards of the viral dance, now being recognized as one of the most prominent faces of Generation Z, Harmon had to sit on the sidelines and watch her dance spread like wildfire with no credit to its original creator. While the dance for D’amelio meant hundreds of millions of followers, a new life as an influencer, and various brand opportunities, the dance for Harmon could have meant all of that plus forging connections with prominent people in professional dance and choreography communities. 

In the wake of global Black Lives Matter protests and marches came an uproar of social media content highlighting the racial disparities found throughout the justice system and calling for major reform. TikTok presented itself as the perfect outlet for informational videos that Black creators could use to put out content pertaining to protests, causes that needed attention, and overall spread awareness of racial injustice. This perfect outlet proved to be severely flawed as it became apparent that TikTok was shadow-banning accounts that spoke out about Black Lives Matter, flagging these videos through captions and use of hashtags that showed support for the movement.

This led to videos being taken down for “violating community guidelines,” creators facing a decline in their audience engagement, and important topics being overshadowed by the app’s desire to create an environment free of controversy. Rather than supporting and uplifting Black creators who aimed to bring to light worldwide issues and how their audiences can help, TikTok catered to the people who would leave comments on this videos saying things along the lines of “Not everything has to be about race,” or “TikTok is meant for entertainment, not politics.” Black creators had to go to, what should have been, unnecessary lengths to get their content to reach For You pages; it wasn’t uncommon to see a TikTok begin with a completely different topic than the actual subject matter of the video, a creator dancing over an audio discussing a serious issue, or creators urging viewers to comment nondescript phrases to boost their videos.

TikTok’s neglect to show solidarity in a time where the world was speaking out about injustice perpetuates the common theme they display when dealing with BIPOC creators and influencers: out of sight, out of mind. 

Fenty Beauty by Rihanna | Beauty for All

While the rise of diversity in brands such as Fenty Beauty bode well for the future of BIPOC influencers, there is no doubt that there is currently a disproportionate amount of fame and money between these creators and White creators. Racial bias extends to platforms past TikTok, with YouTube’s handpicked trending tab prioritizing White creators, Twitter’s algorithm focusing on White people in tweeted photos, and the Instagram explore page and shop tab favoring posts with White influencers. Addressing and holding companies accountable are necessary for progress and recognition for BIPOC creators and are a step in the direction of these companies addressing their racial bias. 

BIPOC TIKTOKERS TO FOLLOW

  • Jalaiah Harmon (@jalaiahharmon)
  • Analisse Rodriguez (analisseworld)
  • Shubha (@tiktokbrownchick)
  • Meg (@bootlegmeg_)
  • Rahul Rai (@therealrahulrai)
  • Trinity Francisco(@trinity..francisco)
  • Ehi Omigie (@e_heman)
  • Linda Dong (@yoleendadong)
  • Nava (@the.navarose)
  • Kadeem Hemmings (@kadeemh)
  • Yasmine Sahid (@ladyyasamina1)
  • Matisse Azul Rainbolt (@matisseazul)
  • Shina Nova (@shinanova)
  • Grace Africa (@grace_africa)
  • Liz Sanchez (@officiallizsanchez)

Dylan Follmer

Dylan is a 16-year old junior at Bayonne High School, who displays multiple interests in politics, activism, writing, reading, and journalism. She is passionate about making changes in the world as a member of Generation Z, and strongly believes that the youth can influence and change the world in the best way possible.

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