TECHNOLOGY

‘I Need My Girlfriend Off TikTok’: How Hackers Game Abuse-Reporting Systems

A user The Times found in the comments section below a different mass reporting tool, who identified himself as an 18-year-old Hungarian named Dénes Zarfa Szú, said that he’s personally used mass reporting tools “to mass report bully posts” and accounts peddling sexual content. He said the limiting factor on those tools’ efficacy has been how popular a post was, not whether that post broke any rules.

“You can take down almost anything,” Szú said in an email, as long as it’s not “insanely popular.”

And a 20-year-old programmer from Kurdistan who goes by the screen name Mohamed Linux due to privacy concerns said that a mass reporting tool he made could get videos deleted even if they didn’t break any rules.

These are difficult claims to prove without back-end access to TikTok’s moderation system — and Linux, who discussed his work via Telegram, said his program no longer works because TikTok fixed a bug he’d been exploiting. (The Times found Linux’s code on GitHub, although Linux said it had been leaked there and that he normally sells it to private buyers for $50.)

Yet the lack of clarity around how well mass reporting works hasn’t stopped it from capturing the imaginations of TikTokers, many of whom lack better answers as to why their videos keep disappearing. In the comments section below a recent statement that TikTok made acknowledging concerns about mass reporting, swarms of users — some of them with millions of followers — complained that mass reporting had led to their posts and accounts getting banned for unfair or altogether fabricated reasons.

Among those critics was Allen Polyakov, a gamer and TikTok creator affiliated with the esports organization Luminosity Gaming, who wrote that the platform had “taken down many posts and streams of mine because I’ve been mass reported.” Elaborating on those complaints later, he told The Times that mass reporting became a big issue for him only after he began getting popular on TikTok.

“Around summer of last year, I started seeing that a lot of my videos were getting taken down,” said Polyakov, 27. But he couldn’t figure out why certain videos had been removed: “I would post a video of me playing Fortnite and it would get taken down” after being falsely flagged for containing nudity or sexual activity.

The seemingly nonsensical nature of the takedowns led him to think trolls were mass-reporting his posts. It wasn’t pure speculation either: he said people have come into his live-streams and bragged about successfully mass reporting his content, needling him with taunts of “We got your video taken down” and “How does it feel to lose a viral video?”

Polyakov made clear that he loves TikTok. “It’s changed my life and given me so many opportunities,” he said. But the platform seems to follow a “guilty ’til proven innocent” ethos, he said, which errs on the side of removing videos that receive lots of reports, and then leaves it up to creators to appeal those decisions after the fact.

Those appeals can take a few days, he said, which might as well be a millennium given TikTok’s fast-moving culture. “I would win most of my appeals — but because it’s already down for 48 to 72 hours, the trend might have went away; the relevance of that video might have went away.”

As with many goods and services that exist on the periphery of polite society, there’s no guarantee that mass-reporting tools will work. Complaints about broken links and useless programs are common on the hacker forums where such software is posted.

But technical reviews of several mass-reporting tools posted on GitHub — including those written by H4xton, Omran and Linux — suggest that this cottage industry is not entirely smoke and mirrors.

Francesco Bailo, a lecturer in digital and social media at the University of Technology Sydney, said that what these tools “claim to do is not technically complicated.”

“Do they work? Possibly they worked when they were first written,” Bailo said in an email. But the programs “don’t seem to be actively maintained,” which is essential given that TikTok is probably “monitoring and contrasting this kind of activity” in a sort of coding arms race.
Patrik Wikstrom, a communication professor at the Queensland University of Technology, was similarly circumspect.

“They might work, but they most likely need a significant amount of hand-holding to do the job well,” Wikstrom said via email. Because TikTok doesn’t want content reports to be sent from anywhere but the confines of the company’s own app, he said, mass reporting requires some technical trickery: “I suspect they need a lot of manual work not to get kicked out.”

But however unreliable mass-reporting tools are — and however successful TikTok is in separating their complaints from more legitimate ones — influencers including Coyne and Polyakov insist that the problem is one the company needs to start taking more seriously.

“This is literally the only platform that I’ve ever had any issues” on, Polyakov said. ” I can post any video that I have on TikTok anywhere else, and it won’t be an issue.”

“Might you get some kids being assholes in the comments?” he said. “Yeah — but they don’t have the ability to take down your account.”

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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