TikTok as battleground

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

Among the presidential candidates, only three had a presence on TikTok: Bongbong Marcos, Leni Robredo and Isko Moreno.

And the winner, based on the number of followers, is…Yorme Isko.

Moreno had 3.4 million followers shortly before election day. BBM had 1.6 million, while Vice President Leni, a belated user of the short-form video hosting and sharing app, had only 466,000.

Among the Senate bets, contrary to perceptions, No. 1 winner Robin Padilla did not dance his way to victory to the tune of “Paru-Paro G” through TikTok but through other platforms. The one with greater presence on the app was opposition bet Chel Diokno, probably helped along by his son, film director Pepe Diokno. Yet Chel lost his second bid for the Senate.

All these details were provided to me by the Filipino head of TikTok’s public policy in the Philippines and Malaysia, Toff Rada.

Toff, whom I’ve known since his days at the New Zealand embassy and then Mondelez, cites those details to illustrate his view that TikTok’s role in this year’s election campaign has been overrated.

If social media, particularly TikTok, was a key battleground in the 2022 election campaign, Moreno should have been the frontrunner, Toff told me last Friday. And what happened to the 16 million Facebook followers of Dr. Willie Ong, who placed a far third in the vice presidential race?

What Toff acknowledges is the efficiency by which the Marcos camp used TikTok, which is basically a platform for entertainment rather than the discussion of complex political issues.

Toff noted that with those brief videos unique to TikTok, the Marcos camp was creating a positive image of the candidate as an ordinary family man, “humanizing” him. The posts were free; Toff said TikTok did not accept political ads.

“I think the Marcos camp knew early on that it was a perceptions election, not an issues election,” Toff said.

*      *      *

As for lies and distortions of history, Toff acknowledges that TikTok, like all social media platforms, provides fertile ground for the spread of disinformation.

He reassures the public that TikTok moved during the campaign and continues to exert effort to remove harmful content.

This is done, Toff explains, through the use of artificial intelligence. AI weeds out graphic and harmful violations of community guidelines set for those who post content on TikTok.

A second layer of checking content is done by humans. TikTok has a “trust and safety team” composed of people who are fluent in English, Filipino and several major dialects, whose main task is to “moderate” content on the platform.

Toff told me that in the fourth quarter of 2021, TikTok’s AI caught 94 percent of the violations of its community guidelines, which were promptly removed even before anyone reported the violations. Only the remaining six percent was left to be monitored by the trust and safety team.

At the start of the campaign, TikTok provided specific tabs for easy reporting of disinformation, labeled as “misleading information” and “election misinformation.” TikTok also has a tab for reporting “COVID misinformation.”

As in other socmed platforms, penalties on violators can be appealed, especially if the user can prove that the wrong information or harmful content was inadvertently posted.

TikTok coordinated with the Commission on Elections to help weed out disinformation, and set up an “election hub” linked to the Comelec website. The Comelec also set up its own TikTok page.

TikTok partnered with GMA 7 as well as the University of the Philippines and Ateneo de Manila University.

Even if TikTok is primarily an entertainment app, Toff said, “that was our way of trying to promote credible sources of information.”

*      *      *

Stressing that there is no perfect system, he notes that self-promoting “organic, authentic” content, without proper context, is more challenging to moderate.

That socmed post, for example, presenting BBM as a kargador of a styro box reportedly containing Australian lamb continues the effort to project him as an ordinary Joe.

Those who subsist on goto with a sprinkling of isaw will not ask if BBM is bringing home the boxful of pricey meat (from P1,099 to P2,480 per kilo online) for his daily meal. It’s peanuts for him; one Picasso painting alone can buy him an entire sheep farm in Australia.

And the goto-isaw eaters won’t observe that only billionaires, whose relatives and close friends own vast tracts of the country’s prime real estate, and whose mothers have uniformed maids to carry even their tissue holders, will consider a man carrying a styro box of meat a remarkable sight.

A simple life? There is nothing simple about how the other half lives.

Another issue raised against TikTok, notably by Donald Trump, is that it’s an instrument of Beijing for spying on the world.

Toff, a dead ringer for Sen. Sonny Angara, is an alumni of the University of the Philippines and the Philippine Science High School. His surname is rooted in Spanish.

He stresses that TikTok is not even available in China. But there is a Chinese version called Douyin, operated by the same company, ByteDance, which was founded in 2012 by a Chinese, Zhang Yiming.

Toff maintains that Douyin is not interoperable with TikTok, whose data centers are domiciled only in two countries: the US and its global hub Singapore. TikTok, Toff adds, cannot share data and values privacy protection, and Beijing cannot order ByteDance to provide access to TikTok data.

*      *      *

Last December, TikTok’s global head of communications Hilary McQuaide was quoted by the New York Times as saying that “while there’s some commonality in the code, the TikTok and Douyin apps are run entirely separately, on separate servers, and neither code contains user data.”

She also said, “TikTok has never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we if asked.”

Toff pointed out that TikTok’s algorithm is available online for anyone’s scrutiny.

I’m no techie so I will leave this issue to the tech and security experts to resolve.

Launched in 2016, TikTok reached the Philippines around 2018, gaining a firm foothold by 2019 with its infectious brief dance videos.

The pandemic lockdowns contributed to its growth in global popularity as people turned to the short, entertaining video clips to escape COVID cabin fever.

Their next project is the creation of a Southeast Asian “digital literacy hub” that promotes critical thinking. The hub was launched last February and will be rolled out in the Philippines in June or July.

TikTok has a four-step guide for promoting digital literacy, with infographics to “stop, think decide, act” and the hashtag “think before you do.”

Toff acknowledges that critical thinking is a special skill and digital literacy “is a work in progress.”

The effort will be alongside TikTok’s main focus, as described by Toff: “We try to enhance creativity and bring joy.”


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