May 25, 2022

TikTok parent company ByteDance created fake accounts using content from Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms and posted it on Flipagram in 2017, according to a new report from BuzzFeed News today. The report says the company has taken videos, usernames, photos and more from social media platforms and uploaded them to the app without users’ consent or knowledge.

BuzzFeed News spoke to four former ByteDance employees who they say were laid off shortly after the company acquired Flipagram in January 2017. Internal documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that the write-off was seen as a “growth hack” for the company. One employee said ByteDance’s goal was to collect over 10,000 videos a day.

Two employees said the scraping was used to train and inform the ByteDance “for you” algorithm currently used by TikTok and its Chinese counterpart Douyin. Members say ByteDance wanted to train algorithms on American content. The report also suggests that ByteDance collected and downloaded content from Musical.ly, which would later become TikTok after ByteDance acquired the company in 2017.

BuzzFeed News sent a list of allegations to ByteDance, along with questions, to which ByteDance responded: “ByteDance acquired Flipagram in 2017 and ran it for a while, then Vigo. Flipagram and Vigo went out of business many years ago and are not affiliated with current ByteDance products.”

In internal documents, there are references to data scraping and the reasons why the company did it. In one paper, an employee explained that the extracted content can be used to test what types of videos perform best on the platform. The author also noted that current users can impersonate content to improve their own videos and gain popularity.

Former employees said some people saw their social media content posted on Flipagram and contacted the company. The report states that employees were ordered to either delete the fake accounts or transfer control of the account to the person who filed the complaint.

Flipagram, founded in 2013, allowed users to create short videos and share them as a kind of TikTok pre-cursor.

As this report states, the practice of content scraping as a growth hack was not uncommon for services running at the time. But the question arises whether TikTok’s algorithms were trained using video content from competing apps. (BuzzFeed was able to get a comment from Brian Daly, former CTO of Flipagram, who denied that the deletion was taking place.)

The Flipagram app has become popular with younger users and was once considered a major threat to Instagram. But while ByteDance learned a lot from Flipagram, it eventually decided to merge Musical.ly with TikTok and fired the Flipagram team in February 2018.

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