A new study from the Center Against Digital Hate finds that TikTok videos using hashtags previously identified as hosting eating disorder content are continuing to attract viewers.
A December report by the campaign group identified the ‘coding’ hashtag where users could use Access to potentially harmful videos Promotes restrictive diets and so-called “skinny” content designed to encourage harmful weight loss.
The organization’s new analysis of the labels found that only seven have been removed from the platform since the study, and only three carried health warnings on the UK version of the app.
But TikTok said it had removed content that violated its rules, which do not allow the promotion or glorification of eating disorders.
The Center to Combat Digital Hate (CCDH) said it had found hashtags that had amassed more than 1.6 billion views on the platform, which Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, described as “very concerning”.
“First of all, there is no excuse for harmful hashtags and videos on TikTok,” said Andrew Radford, Beat’s chief executive.
“Companies should identify and remove harmful content as soon as it is uploaded,” he told Sky News.
Content Warning: This article contains references to eating disorders.
TikTok’s community guidelines restrict content related to eating disorders on its platform, and this includes hashtags explicitly related to it.
But users often make minor changes to the terminology so they can continue to post potentially harmful material about eating disorders without being spotted by TikTok moderators.
“Coding” languages that avoid detection
In the December report, the CCDH identified 56 TikTok hashtags using “coded” language under which potentially harmful eating disorder content was found.
The CCDH also found that 35 hashtags contained a high concentration of videos supporting eating disorders, while it said 21 contained a mix of harmful content and healthy discussions.
Among the material found in both categories were videos promoting unhealthy weight loss, restrictive diets and “slimming”.
In November, those hashtags had 13.2 billion views. When CCDH reviewed them in January, it found that views of videos using the hashtag had grown to more than 14.8 billion.
Since the original study, CCDH said the seven tags it identified have been completely removed from the platform.
Four of them primarily hosted pro-eating disorder content, while three contained both positive and harmful videos.
During the review, CCDH found that when US users visited, 37 hashtags they identified carried safety warnings, directing users to leading eating disorder charities in the US.
However, the same review found that for UK users, only three of these labels carried the same type of warning.
“TikTok is clearly able to add warnings for potentially harmful English-language content, but has chosen not to enforce this warning for English-language content in the UK,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center Against Digital Hate.
He told Sky News: “There is no clearer example than this that the platforms are actually enforcing supposedly universal rules partially, selectively and only when the platforms feel genuine pressure from the government.”
New research also shows that most of the people who access material under these hashtags are young people.
Using TikTok’s own data analysis tools, CCDH found that 91% of views on 21 hashtags came from users under the age of 24. However, since TikTok does not include any data on users under the age of 18, the tool has limitations.
Mr Ahmed added: “Three months later, despite the outcry from parents, politicians and the public, the content continues to grow and spread unchecked.”
“Each point of view represents a potential victim—some whose mental health may be harmed by negative body image content, and some who may begin to restrict their diets to dangerously low levels,” he said.
A group of charities including the NSPCC, the Molly Russell Foundation and the US and UK divisions of the Psychological Foundation in the United States called on TikTok to improve its moderation policies in a letter to its head of security, Eric Han, based on the CCDH’s findings.
In response to the findings, a TikTok spokesperson said: “Our community guidelines are clear that we do not allow the promotion, normalization or glorification of eating disorders, and we have removed content mentioned in this report that violates these rules.
“We are open to feedback and review, and we seek to engage constructively with partners who have expertise on these complex issues, as we do with NGOs in the US and UK.”
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