Anti-Trump TikTokkers not declaring paid content

Anti-Trump TikTokkers not declaring paid content
The company, Bigtent Creative, funds skits and memes to persuade people to register, such as mixing rapper Cardi B s WAP song with a message from her telling people to vote.

Some of the videos it has paid for are non-partisan, but others call for President Trump to be voted out of office and in none of the videos do the creators disclose that they have been paid.

TikTok bans political ads and requires people to declare paid-for content. When we showed TikTok what we found, the company took several TikToks down - these had already got hundreds of thousands of views.

Guidelines from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) stipulate content creators should always disclose paid partnerships, usually by using #ad in the caption.

A TikTok spokesperson said: "These guidelines also apply to paid content by influencers, and we rely on influencers and marketers to follow FTC guidelines.

"We remove paid influencer content that s not disclosed as such as we become aware of it and are now taking action on this."

With two weeks until the US election, the competition for the youth vote is fierce and the drive to get first-time voters to register has intensified.

Potentially millions of young TikTok users will not understand that some of the fun, quirky skits they are seeing are being paid for or supported by political interests.

Bigtent Creative began life as a grassroots initiative that made memes in support of US Senator Elizabeth Warren s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It has since morphed into a marketing company, working with influencers ahead of the November election.

The company says it gets funding from a variety of Democrat organisations and non-partisan sources including VoteSimple, PushBlack and ProgressPop. It does not have to declare the sources of its funding, although its clients with political affiliations do.

Under Federal Election Commission rules, paid-for material to get out the vote is not classified as political and does not need to be disclosed - but this relies on content being non-partisan.

Bigtent Creative argues the material they pay for does not qualify as political advertising, but some of the creators they funded have been making anti-Trump material - which in TikTok s eyes has been deemed political advertising.

image captionA popular sound on TikTok features a remix of Cardi B s WAP song and her telling people to register to vote. WAP has been a viral dance trend on the app.

Ysiad Ferreiras, Bigtent Creative s CEO, said: "Our work is not consistent with the platform s definition of an advertisement. Our creators make their own content as digital organisers, they re advocating for non-partisan action the same way paid canvassers and organisers working for non-profits do."

But the line between partisan and non-partisan in these videos are often blurred - and the company told the BBC it discourages partners to use #ad because they want the videos to appear authentic.

The videos are made by popular creators and show trending dances or a skit or monologue, and are similar to the videos they usually post.

In one series of videos Bigtent Creative supported, a number of prominent TikTok accounts duetted with each other to promote a non-partisan voter registration link. But some of the users in this so-called "vote chain" included anti-Trump messages such as: "Trump is trying to ban TikTok again...can we please vote him out?"

image captionVoter chains to promote registration, did so by attacking Trump in their videos

This particular "vote chain" is still up, but others which call President Trump an "angry Cheeto", "orange Brussel sprout" or point to a domain called "wearescrewed2020" have been taken down for violating community guidelines, after the BBC highlighted them to TikTok.

When we showed some of these TikToks to Bigtent Creative, a member of their team said the videos had non-partisan funding, and as such should not have included anti-Trump statements.

At least one of the creators funded by Bigtent told the BBC that they had no clue they should have been disclosing that they had been paid for the video.

Bigtent says it has helped register 25,000 voters so far, with about half of those from TikTok, more than from any other social media platform.

media captionWhat s going on with TikTok?

Despite the political ad ban, political content on TikTok is prolific.

Anna Massoglia from Center of Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks the impact of money on politics, says this highlights the issues around leaving regulation of digital advertising to social media platforms.

"We don t know how much happens on a covert level," she says.

"One of the problems with TikTok s comprehensive ban of political ads is that paid partnerships are less easy to track and may be happening under the radar of the platform."

The disclosure of online advertising is less stringent than with traditional advertising. The last time that the Federal Election Commission wrote guidelines was in 2006 - when many of America s TikTok users and creators weren t even born yet.

To find out more about how TikTok is being used ahead of the US election, listen to the World Service documentary The TikTok Election here .
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