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TikTok profits from livestreams of families begging

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Displaced families in Syrian camps are begging for donations on TikTok while the company takes up to 70% of the proceeds, a BBC investigation found.

Children are livestreaming on the social media app for hours, pleading for digital gifts with a cash value.

The BBC saw streams earning up to $1,000 (£900) an hour, but found the people in the camps received only a tiny fraction of that.

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TikTok said it would take prompt action against “exploitative begging”.

The company said this type of content was not allowed on its platform, and it said its commission from digital gifts was significantly less than 70%. But it declined to confirm the exact amount.

Earlier this year, TikTok users saw their feeds fill with livestreams of families in Syrian camps, drawing support from some viewers and concerns about scams from others.

In the camps in north-west Syria, the BBC found that the trend was being facilitated by so-called “TikTok middlemen”, who provided families with the phones and equipment to go live.

The middlemen said they worked with agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East, who gave the families access to TikTok accounts. These agencies are part of TikTok’s global strategy to recruit livestreamers and encourage users to spend more time on the app.

Since the TikTok algorithm suggests content based on the geographic origin of a user’s phone number, the middlemen said they prefer to use British SIM cards. They say people from the UK are the most generous gifters.

Mona Ali Al-Karim and her six daughters are among the families who go live on TikTok every day, sitting on the floor of their tent for hours, repeating the few English phrases they know: “Please like, please share, please gift.”

Mona’s husband was killed in an airstrike and she is using the livestreams to raise money for an operation for her daughter Sharifa, who is blind.

The gifts they’re asking for are virtual, but they cost the viewers real money and can be withdrawn from the app as cash. Livestream viewers send the gifts – ranging from digital roses, costing a few cents, to virtual lions costing around $500 – to reward or tip creators for content.

For five months, the BBC followed 30 TikTok accounts broadcasting live from Syrian camps for displaced people and built a computer program to scrape information from them, showing that viewers were often donating digital gifts worth up to $1,000 an hour to each account.

Families in the camps said they were receiving only a tiny fraction of these sums, however.

With TikTok declining to say how much it takes from gifts, the BBC ran an experiment to track where the money goes.

A reporter in Syria contacted one of the TikTok-affiliated agencies saying he was living in the camps. He obtained an account and went live, while BBC staff in London sent TikTok gifts worth $106 from another account.

At the end of the livestream, the balance of the Syrian test account was $33. TikTok had taken 69% of the value of the gifts.

split screen with keith on one side and syrian family on the other

TikTok influencer and ex-professional rugby player Keith Mason donated £300 ($330) during one family’s livestream and encouraged his nearly one million followers to do the same.

When told by the BBC that most of these funds were taken by the social media company, he said it was “ridiculous” and “unfair” to families in Syria.

“You’ve got to have some transparency. To me, that’s very greedy. It’s greed,” he said.

The $33 remaining from the BBC’s $106 gift was reduced by a further 10% when it was withdrawn from the local money transfer shop. TikTok middlemen would take 35% of the remainder, leaving a family with just $19.

Hamid, one of the TikTok middlemen in the camps, told the BBC he had sold his livestock to pay for a mobile phone, SIM card and wi-fi connection to work with families on TikTok.

He now broadcasts with 12 different families, for several hours a day.

Hamid said he uses TikTok to help families make a living. He pays them most of the profits, minus his running costs, he said.

Like the other middlemen, Hamid said he was supported by “live agencies” in China, who work directly with TikTok.

“They help us if we have any problems with the app. They unlock blocked accounts. We give them the name of the page, the profile picture, and they open the account,” Hamid said.

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Agencies like these, known as “livestreaming guilds” and based all around the world, are contracted by TikTok to help content creators produce more appealing livestreams.

TikTok pays them a commission according to the duration of livestreams and the value of gifts received, the agencies told the BBC.

The emphasis on duration means TikTokers, including children in the Syrian camps, go live for hours at a time.

Marwa Fatafta, from digital rights organisation Access Now, says these livestreams run contrary to TikTok’s own policies to “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors on the platform.

BBC iPlayer

BBC News investigates a new trend on TikTok – hundreds of families in camps for displaced people in Syria, begging for gifts on TikTok livestreams.

BBC iPlayer

“TikTok clearly states that users are not allowed to explicitly solicit gifts, so this is a clear violation of their own terms of services, as well as the rights of these people,” she said.

She acknowledges that people have the right to share their stories online “to try to seek support and sympathy”, but she says these livestreams “lack dignity, and are humiliating”.

TikTok’s rules say you must have 1,000 followers before you can go live, you must not directly solicit for gifts and must “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors on the platform.

But when the BBC used the in-app system to report 30 accounts featuring children begging, TikTok said there had been no violation of its policies in any of the cases.

After the BBC contacted TikTok directly for comment, the company banned all of the accounts.

It said in a statement: “We are deeply concerned by the information and allegations brought to us by the BBC, and have taken prompt and rigorous action.

“This type of content is not allowed on our platform, and we are further strengthening our global policies around exploitative begging.”

TikTok, the world’s fastest-growing social media app, has made more than $6.2bn in gross revenue from in-app spending since its launch in 2017, according to analytics company Sensor Tower.

The BBC approached several charities working in Syria to support families in the camps as an alternative to making money on TikTok Live.

A local charity Takaful Alsham said it would provide basic supplies to the families for the next three months, helping the children find schools and covering their educational expenses.

But for many in the camps, there are few options to make money other than begging online. Hundreds of families continue to go live every day, and most of the money donated is still going to TikTok.

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Additional research and reporting: Mohammed Abdullah, Runako Celina, Cyrus Chan, Ned Davies and Katy Ling

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