Political TikTok users are finding a way around the platform's ban on political advertising through sneaky influencer campaigns that evade the company’s detection, according to a new report from the Mozilla Foundation.
On Thursday, Mozilla Foundation released a study that claimed a small sampling of politically-affiliated TikTok users boosted causes under undisclosed paid relationships. Mozilla looked into two political organizations, with opposing views on the left and right, and found they were active on TikTok in 2020.
“We found that TikTok doesn’t actively monitor and enforce its rule that influencers disclose paid partnerships, nor does the platform label sponsored posts as advertising,” Mozilla Foundation said in its 20-page report. “These inconsistent disclosure practices—paired with zero ad transparency tools or archives—makes it very difficult to monitor political influencer ads on TikTok.”
The posts violate TikTok’s political ads ban, and on Thursday TikTok said it removed at least one of the posts identified in the report. A TikTok representative also said the company is working on making it easier for users to label paid posts when they are not political.
"Political advertising is not allowed on TikTok, and we continue to invest in people and technology to consistently enforce this policy and build tools for creators on our platform,” the TikTok representative said in an email. “As we evolve our approach we appreciate feedback from experts, including researchers at the Mozilla Foundation, and we look forward to a continuing dialogue as we work to develop equitable policies and tools that promote transparency, accountability, and creativity."
TikTok does have a creator marketplace for official accounts to manage paid relationships with brands. The creators in that program have tools to label the content as sponsored, similar to how it works on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube and other services.
Murky influencer-marketer relationships are nothing new in the world of advertising, and it’s an issue the Federal Trade Commission often investigates. TikTok, however, is a new type of social media platform with about 100 million active users in the U.S. It is the first major social media company from China to make it big in the U.S.
There are two issues highlighted in Mozilla Foundation’s report: The clandestine political advertising, and limited transparency around sponsored posts, in general.
In cases of non-political ads, Mozilla Foundation said that TikTok makes it easy to track sponsored content through the official creator program, which includes popular accounts like Charli D’Amelio. However, with users outside the sanctioned creators marketplace it is harder to review whether they comply with FTC regulations.
Mozilla Foundation found that two groups, in particular, appeared to be compensating politically active creators to promote their causes.
Mozilla Foundation reviewed posts from TikTok users attending a conference run by Turning Point USA, a conservative special-interest group. Mozilla Foundation claimed the “political influencers” received benefits in the form of free travel. A pro-Biden group called The 99 Problems, “created and funded” accounts on TikTok, too, Mozilla Foundation reported.