How TikTok is taking advantage of vulnerable Syrian refugees

In depth: Displaced families in Syria are broadcasting live on TikTok begging viewers to give them ‘virtual gifts’, but a recent BBC investigation found the social media platform was reaping the benefits.

“Please, like, share, please donate” is one of the most common phrases used by Syrian children and their parents on TikTok live streams to convince viewers to donate. virtual, which in return can be withdrawn in cash.

Amina Sultan is a single mother of four who lives in northern Syria. She earns as much as she can through the live streams she does with her children on TikTok, where she shares stories about the hardships they face in the hope that viewers around the world will sympathize with their plight and give them gifts.

“I’m not a tech savvy so my cousin helped me set up the account and I use his phone every night to live stream for three to four hours with the kids,” Sultan said. The new Arabic.

“The number of gifts we receive exceeded my expectations, I am grateful for all the donors but I am aware that we only receive a small percentage of the total value, which I find unfair as it is not easy to sit in front of a screen begging and feeling pity,” Sultan added.

“It is unfortunate that these children are used as a tool of sympathy to earn money, they are exploited on live streams which can expose them to certain psychological damage”

Tiktok users need at least 1,000 followers to go live, and when they do, other users can reward creators with digital gifts for content they like. Gifts are purchased with real money, ranging from roses and hearts, which cost less than a dollar, to universes and lions, which cost around $500.

Hamid Al Oulwa, known as a TikTok middleman in one of Syria’s IDP camps, sold all his belongings to buy a phone and earn a living helping families livestream on the platform using his phone and his Internet connection.

“I have worked with twelve different families since I started six months ago, and I withdraw the value of digital gifts from a money transfer shop in a town outside the camps via an account connected to my card bank,” Al Oulwa told the BBC in an interview.

TikTok’s algorithms suggest content based on where your SIM card comes from. According to Al Oulwa, the SIM card he uses is a UK one in order to attract UK viewers to his live streams as he finds them the most generous.

Digital rights advocates have criticized the platform for allowing this type of content to be broadcast.

“It is unfortunate that these children are used as a sympathy tool to earn money, they are exploited on live streams which can expose them to certain psychological harms,” said Rawan Hassan, a digital human rights educator. man based in the Middle East. Is said The new Arabic.

A recent BBC The investigation tracked dozens of live accounts from camps in Syria that sometimes earned more than $1,000 an hour in freebies, but not all of the money went to users.

The investigation found that TikTok intermediaries received help from agencies in China in exchange for a portion of the profits from the value of the freebies. These agencies are an integral part of TikTok’s global business strategy, engaged by the platform to help TikTokers earn money from live streams.

Children attend classes in makeshift classrooms at a camp for internally displaced people in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on December 20, 2021. [Getty]

“The BBC documentary revealed that there are at least five agencies working with Syrian families in camps who say they are paid by TikTok to bring live streamers to the platform. TikTok derives 50-70% of the profits from live giveaways and a portion is donated to agencies,” says Hassan.

In an experiment made by the BBC, an account set up revealed that Tiktok took 70% of the total value of the giveaway. The money transfer store takes 10% and TikTok intermediaries up to 35%, leaving very little for the actual user.

In these camps, jobs are scarce and people have few options to earn a source of income, so the begging for financial aid on the platform is becoming more and more widespread out of desperation and poverty.

Rather than blaming these families, the platform’s liability experts believe the company and agencies working with TikTok should be held accountable for taking advantage of people’s needs and profiting at the expense of children.

“By appearing in videos and live streams, children provide their location and highlight the precariousness of their situation, which can help child traffickers identify and threaten them”

“TikTok has a responsibility to respect human rights and ensure that its services are not used to violate them as their guidelines state that they prohibit activities that perpetuate abuse, harm, harm, danger or exploitation of minors on the platform”, confirmed Haya Abdallah. , a Syrian lawyer specializing in social networks.

According to Abdallah, children appearing in live streams are exposed to dangerous risks. The severity of these can vary, according to Abdallah, with the most common being commercial exploitation and the greatest threat being the potential for child trafficking.

By appearing in videos and live streams, children provide their location and highlight the precariousness of their situation, which can help child traffickers identify and threaten them, Abdallah said.

In a statement to BBC, TikTok said it was deeply concerned about what the investigation had uncovered and said such videos are not allowed on their platform, but declined to say how much it costs freebies. Tiktok has now banned all accounts and is about to ban all users under the age of 18 from live streaming.

Mohammed Safadi, a journalist from northern Syria, said The new Arabic that money doesn’t have to be earned from live streams.

“Some people are also making money by posting videos that show the state of poverty they live in, while showing vulnerable children that they receive money directly from donors by posting their phone numbers. type of content does not appear to be censored by TikTok,” Safadi said.

With no other viable sources of income in the camps, however, it is unclear how successful enforcement of a ban might be and whether displaced Syrians will continue to turn to social media in an attempt to escape the desperate poverty that surrounds them.

Rodayna Raydan is a Lebanese-British journalism graduate from Kingston University in London, covering Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Rodayna_462

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