"Black Lives Matter", looped on TikTok

In two weeks, TikTok seems to have entered a new dimension. The mobile application developed by the Chinese company ByteDance, whose use exploded among teenagers in 2018, was especially known to the general public for videos of choreographies and repeats in play-back of tubes for teens or pre-teens .

Then there was the death of George Floyd. On May 25, this 46-year-old black man died of asphyxiation during his arrest by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Since then, demonstrations against racism and police violence have multiplied in the United States and around the world.

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Like other platforms hosting public content, TikTok has been inundated with images related to the "Black Lives Matter" movement. As of Monday, June 15, the videos with the hashtag "Black Lives Matter" had been viewed more than 10 billion times.

"I had to say something"

By browsing #BlackLivesMatter, TikTok offers an almost uninterrupted flow devoted to the movement: messages of support in music, videos of demonstrations in many cities in the United States (and sometimes in European cities), confrontations between demonstrators, police and opponents… Sometimes, in the background, the words of This Is America, by Childish Gambino (and his remix), whose punch clip castigated America two years ago "Carefree and racist". This is one of the strengths of TikTok: offering music tracks that can be easily integrated into videos that we have shot on our smartphone.

On #BlackLivesMatter, speeches denouncing racism and sometimes overwhelming testimonies now follow one another without a soundtrack. Like the moment when a ten year old girl in tears realizes that she could "Die because of your skin color".

Cameron Welch, 18, living in Houston (Texas), presents for 52 seconds "unwritten" rules given by his mother when he has to leave his house: "Don't put your hands in your pockets. Don't put your hood over your head. Do not go out without a T-shirt. Don't go out too late. Don’t touch anything you don’t buy. Don't leave a store without a receipt or a bag, even if you only take a pack of chewing gum. " Serious lyrics, which have gone viral, which overlap with other reactions posted by African-Americans on TikTok – and which contrast with the choreographies and jokes between friends previously posted by Cameron Welch on his account @skoodupcam.

"In two or three days, the application completely failed", says Pierre Lapin, French videographer, who has been closely following the evolution of TikTok for two years: "It's a continuous flow. I have never seen that. "

Lots of time spent

"I was so disgusted that I had to say something, so that's what I started to do, even though I only had 13 subscribers", a 20-year-old American woman, Raisha Doumbia, told American public radio NPR: she now has more than 80,000 TikTok subscribers, regularly posting engaged videos, some of which have been viewed more than a million times.

This in a context where TikTok, which had already confirmed its place among the giants of youth social networks, saw its use boosted worldwide by confinement: the application was downloaded a total of two billion times, including 315 million over the first three months of 2020. And the time spent by TikTok fans on the application is enormous: researchers speak of 80 minutes per day on average, for Spanish, British and American children aged 4 to 14, whose data have been recently analyzed.

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"I knew that I was going to have to follow TikTok a few years ago, when I opened the application at 1:00 pm on a Sunday and that, when I looked up, it was dinner time", recalls Rebecca Jennings, reporter for Vox living in New York and author of a weekly newsletter dedicated to TikTok: "The app is very strong for that. Because the algorithm knows you so well, it gives you exactly what you want at the right time. "

If, like on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, you can follow the activity of the people to whom you subscribe, the heart of TikTok is indeed in its page "For you": a space where the algorithms of the social network always offer you more videos which the application knows will be of interest to you, based on the data accumulated during your previous views.

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"TikTok never wanted to be this political app"

Faced with the #BlackLivesMatter tidal wave, some observers may have been surprised to see the application take a turn so political, while TikTok does not seem to have been designed for. In November, the Chinese Alex Zhu welcomed in an interview with New york times that the service is perceived "As a platform for memes, play-back, dance, fashion, animals, but not really for political discussion".

However, from "Ok Boomer" to attacks on Democrat Pete Buttigieg during the American primaries, including critics of Justin Trudeau after the revelation of his blackface, such political discussions have always existed. But "TikTok never wanted to be this political app", sums up Rebecca Jennings at World :

"They really tried not to make it an information-centric app. But in the middle of it all, by creating this structure where you can go viral with very few subscribers, they created a machine that could spread political messages extremely quickly. TikTok has always been a place for activists. The difference is that now they are receiving attention. "

For the journalist from Vox, such visibility, for a movement like #BlackLivesMatter, is due to the evolution of those responsible for the platform:

"I think the company has tried to change its image, to be seen as a more inclusive place than it would have done a year ago. A year ago, they would have been really hesitant to even comment on something potentially controversial. "

TikTok goes far away, having often been accused of censorship, or of shadow-banning : a technique which consists in preventing certain videos from going viral, by limiting their exposure. "During the protests in Hong Kong, all the hashtags and related videos were suppressed, deleted by the moderators," recalls Rebecca Jennings. In November 2019, a young user had her account temporarily suspended after have alerted and denounced, in a makeup tutorial, the situation experienced by the Uighur community in China. TikTok had argued a " fault " facing the outcry caused by the removal of his video.

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What however regularly ask the question of a Chinese influence on the moderation – or not – of TikTok. American elected officials have already publicly described the application as "Threat to the security of the United States" for this reason. TikTok officially defended itself by ensuring that it "Did not delete content according to Chinese sensitivities. The Chinese government has never asked us to delete anything and if it was, we would not do it. " A version battered by an investigation by the Washington Post in which former employees testified of a reverse situation.

Change of image

Even for the "Black Lives Matter" movement, TikTok was initially accused of censorship. As NPR recalls, many users found it strange that it was so complicated to watch videos on the linked keyword: #BlackLivesMatter initially did not display any viewing figures. TikTok has since apologized for a new "technical issue," before publicly supporting the black American community. Rebecca Jennings analyzes:

"I think they took seriously the complaints that accused their moderators of removing content that was too political or that put less emphasis on less beautiful or less wealthy users. For a while, TikTok wanted to be seen as something very prestigious where everything was pretty and cute. I think they have since figured out that whether they like it or not, they are a very political platform. "

This was during a period when TikTok also led the offensive by recruiting American Kevin Mayer, a lay operator from Disney, as the new boss; while once again differentiating itself from its parent company and recalling in the American media that TikTok's servers were located outside of China, and that none of the hosted data was subject to Chinese law. "I think this period marks a turning point for TikTok", continues Rebecca Jennings: "It is so essential for understanding young people, their culture, their activism. It's been like this for a long time and I think it's only going to get bigger. "


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