ByteDance, TikTok’s Parent Company accused of making fake accounts and ‘scraping’ content

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Everyone wants to see their company growing rapidly. We often come across the term ‘growth hacks’ being used when people talk about growing their company using certain tricks that can boost it. But what TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has done will certainly remain in the grey area of this term.

It has recently come to light that ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok made fake accounts using or ‘scraping’ data from Instagram, Snapchat, and other social media platforms without the users’ knowledge. The company took photos, videos, usernames, and other content and uploaded them on the Flipagram app in 2017.

Flipagram was an application that enabled users to create and share short videos, like a predecessor of TikTok. This company was taken over by ByteDance which is when the scraping began and it was later renamed Vigo Videos.

Four former employees of the company came forward anonymously and BuzzFeed News reviewed the company’s documents to find out more about these allegations. According to the former employees, these allegations were some of the ‘growth hacks’ of the company and this also included manipulating likes. An employee who witnessed this said, “One like was not one like.” Another document that was viewed, described plans to “crawl video > 10k/day in P0 countries”, which an employee explained meant to scrape more than ten thousand videos in a day, in the high priority regions or countries.

The documents also suggest that the company began to copy content from its China focused video applications and through fake accounts, it uploaded that content on Flipagram. While some employees identified Instagram as the source for scraping, others identified Snapchat and Musical.ly as a source to scrape and upload content.

Two of the employees pointed out that this scraped data was utilized to train the “For You” algorithm of ByteDance on US-based content. This algorithm currently powers TikTok and Douyin (its Chinese equivalent).

“ByteDance acquired Flipagram in 2017 and operated it, and subsequently Vigo, for a short time. Flipagram and Vigo ceased operations years ago and aren’t connected to any current ByteDance products”

-Jeniffer Banks, Spokesperson of ByteDance

It was also noted that the company was scraping and uploading content from Musical.ly which is now TikTok. The internal documents explained a lot about why the company was scraping data, one of which was for testing which type of content will perform best on the platform. The users could also mimic the scraped content to improve their popularity.

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Employees also noted that some people noticed their content was on Flipagram and addressed it to the company. To this, the company instructed the employees to either delete the accounts or give control to the respective owner. Many creators also reached out sayinf someone was impersonating them on Flipagram and some users complained through Twitter.

Along with these allegations, BuzzFeed News prepared a detailed set of questions and sent it to ByteDance. In response, the company’s spokesperson, Jennifer Banks said, “ByteDance acquired Flipagram in 2017 and operated it, and subsequently Vigo, for a short time. Flipagram and Vigo ceased operations years ago and aren’t connected to any current ByteDance products.” Brian Dilley, former CTO of Flipagram denied the scraping allegations placed on the company. None of the co-founders respond to the requests for comments.

This isn’t the first time that ByteDance is facing allegations for controversial practises. Many other companies have previously filed lawsuits against it.

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