“Gifting” feature on TikTok — Manipulation of well-intended features enables abuse

Written by Robin Ahn, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Information Science Major

While TikTok’s beloved gifting feature may look like the perfect way to show one’s appreciation towards their favorite creators, this well-intended feature has brought along many troubles with its rise.

What is TikTok gifting?

Livestream gifting originated in China, where TikTok’s owner Bytedance is based. The idea of voluntarily handing out virtual wads of money to TikTokers as a sign of fanship is a far more normalized way of showing love in East Asia. Professional “cam girls” earn huge amounts from their audiences who like to believe they are engaged in real relationships with them and enjoy feeling as though they are providing monetary support. This feature has trickled down to Western versions of TikTok, where gifting is used as a handy feature to convert in-app currencies to items one could use to gift their favorite creators. The process is divided into multiple steps, with the user first purchasing coins from TikTok’s in-app store, then shopping for gifts. Gifts are tiny animated cartoons that dance or move around the screen once presented during a Livestream. The price range of gifts ranges from “Panda”(5 TikTok coins, less than $1), to “Drama Queen”(5000 TikTok coins, ~$80).

Image credits: Tech junkie

How does gifting work?

So, how does one “gift” their favorite creator? The creator will be live streaming to receive the gifts, and you can gift them by tapping on the gift button at the bottom of your screen. Once you have offered the gift, your part of the transaction is done. The gift sent to a creator is automatically exchanged for diamonds, and diamonds are transferred back into cash. Once a creator makes enough diamonds, they can cash them out for real money using Paypal, transferring the actual worth into their account. The minimum withdrawal amount is $100, so the creator must have enough diamonds before cashing out.

Different entry points to gifting; image credits: Business Insider
A step-by-step example of how gifting works; image credits: Tenable

Children stealing from parents’ credit cards to pay creators

Recently, the platform was accused of manipulating children into sending gifts using their parents’ credit cards. To stop the misuse, TikTok updated its policy that now only users of 18-years-old or above can purchase, send or receive virtual gifts on the platform. Before this new policy, anyone older than 13 was allowed to send virtual gifts, and anyone over 16 could receive them. The new policy was also implemented after the platform was accused of TikTokers pressurizing young users to send them gifts. TikTok has made this policy change to “foster a safe environment where users of all ages can enjoy a live stream without encountering misuse, such as any pressure to send virtual gifts.”

Image from: TikTok

Scammers use stolen footage from celebrities to earn money

Scheming scammers have been boosting their live broadcasts on TikTok by abusing celebrity Instagram and Snapchat live recordings. Such videos are regularly posted on scam accounts to impersonate famous creators and grab their fans’ attention. Scammers broadcast these videos on their livestreams to steal money from users in one of three ways:

  1. TikTok Live gifts: digital gifts presented to creators by fans that can be cashed out.
  2. Advertisement of iffy beauty products: sourced by bulk purchasing items from websites like AliExpress then reselling them at a steep markup to impressionable young audiences.
  3. Affiliate links to adult dating websites: using racy, provocative videos pilfered from celebs to grab the viewer’s attention, then earning scammers money for each click made into said dating platforms.

Abusing videos of regular women: Your friend could be the next target

It’s not difficult at all for scammers to exploit the TikTok gifting feature and make a living for themselves. All one needs is a base of 1,000 followers and to go live for the gifts to start pouring in. Scammers may reach this 1,000 follower milestone by using stolen footage of dance challenges featuring hypersexualized women in skimpy outfits. These videos are stolen and abused without the uploader’s permission or knowledge. Our lab was able to interview certain individuals whose videos were stolen to bait users for gifts and hear their traumatic experiences about how their videos were taken out of context and reduced to serve such a moronic purpose.

Videos of regular women stolen and displayed without context; Image credits: Tenable

Gifting as a breeding ground for sex trafficking on TikTok

Manipulation through gifting happens in a myriad of ways. Creators with malicious intent can trick their followers into sending them money in exchange for their personal phone numbers or sexually explicit photos of themselves. They can gaslight their followers into believing they have formed true emotional bonds with each other, matter-of-factly asking them for money as if they were involved in somewhat of a “sugar” relationship with shared access to funds and property.

The feature even contains the vast potential to be flipped into a breeding ground for sex trafficking, which refers to the act of exchanging sexual favors for money. According to “How TikTok Live Became ‘A Strip Club filled with 15-year-olds” by Forbes, TikTok livestreams are a popular place for men to lurk and for young girls –enticed by money and gifts– to stage sexually suggestive broadcasts.

Image credits: DailyMail

Per stated by the article, viewers say “outfit check” to get a complete look at a girl’s body; “pedicure check” to see their feet; “there’s a spider on your wall” to get girls to turn around and show their rears, and “play rock-paper-scissors” to encourage girls to flirt-fight or wrestle each other. Girls are monetarily reimbursed via in-app gifting for responding to such requests and become more susceptible to grooming, which can be defined as getting primed to physically meet or serve sexual demands made by pedophiles.

Gifting is generally viewed among teenagers as free pocket money when they see classmates and acquaintances raking in $200–400 weekly in TikTok gifts by responding to requests from older males by “taking feet pics,” or “teasing viewers by taking off one layer of clothing at a time.” This normalizes the action of taking initiative to earn their own pocket money by performing suggestive acts on-screen while trapping them in the relief and empowerment that they are able to pull off live broadcasts without revealing their faces or leaking any personal information.

Little do teens and tweens know they are standing at the starting line for actual sextortion and grooming. Lighthearted interactions with predators eventually bleed into other social media platforms such as Snapchat, which is commonly used for facilitating deeper conversations with pedophiles and forming emotional bonds that birth online romantic relationships, which, of course, inevitably transition to in-person physical trafficking.

So, how do we put a stop to this?

Being a mere college kid who has spent a single semester looking into youth tech safety at the Social Media Lab, I am definitely no expert on this topic nor do I possess the background to suggest substantial advice on how to rid this problem. However, after months of coding up trafficking victim interviews, drafting user maps on trafficking routes, performing investigative research on teenage dating apps, and pouring over technical federal laws such as Section 230, I have realized my burning passion for youth tech safety and hope to make two heartfelt suggestions to alleviate the matter; one for the parents, and another for TikTok designers to implement.

Suggestion for parents:

My proposal to adults with children exploring TikTok is to firmly educate their children that whatever they do online (especially their actions and words spoken during TikTok livestreams), and the interactions they have with other users will inevitably leave digital footprints that are never truly erasable, as screenshots and recordings glide off of established apps and are ultimately spray painted across all corners of the internet.

It is common knowledge that child sexual abuse imagery from livestreams is redistributed on third-party platforms and predatory communities after the first broadcast. I want parents to educate their children that predators on livestreams will manipulate and abuse children in the moment of the livestream, screen record everything, then snip out the “sexual” scenes to make money off of it on the dark web and other websites where it’s publicly traded.

Parents should also make an effort to monitor their children’s accounts occasionally and ensure they don’t have their payment information (Venmo, PayPal, or Cash App) enlisted on their TikTok profiles as it can inadvertently suggest to predators that this individual’s private photos or videos may be up for sale. There is a possibility that children might simply have their payment information up in hopes that a rich individual might surf by their account and shower them with money, but parents must remind their children that having one’s payment information on their bios might attract the wrong crowd and give out the impression that they are voluntarily involved in digital grooming or sex work.

I would also suggest to parents willing to be strict that they simply deter their children from going Live on TikTok in the first place, as young girls can never go live without potential predators trying to milk sexually explicit material out of them by asking them to flash their bodies using nuanced euphemisms, such as “outfit/pedi check” or “time to stretch.” In my opinion, TikTok livestreams are a recipe for grooming and I would suggest they keep their children away from this until they reach a certain age where they can fully discern bullshit from pure intentions.

Suggestion for designers:

Most parents are unaware of what’s happening on livestreams as TikTok gifts are formatted as fun emojis and sparkly animations, disfiguring reality and the status quo of “paying children for sexual favors.” Transactions made through flowers or bouncy toy emojis prevent children from realizing that they’re actually being paid to film child porn. Parents monitoring their children’s livestreams don’t really stop and think, “Okay, someone’s paying my kid to lift their arms up and show their torso.” No, there are just cute flowers floating around the screen for no reason.

Image credits: Tenable

I would suggest to designers that they tone down the cartoonish, “fun” feel of livestream gifts and sculpt them to represent the monetary value they actually stand for, such as making dollar bills with the exact money value fly across the screen or have stickers representing money to start piling up on the top left corner of the livestream, so it’s more evident to parents that someone is paying their child to dance for them. Having money icons fly across the screen will help show reality as what it is- which is basically 40-year-old males tipping 12-year-olds to reveal their bodies, something that’s too harsh to happen in strip clubs even.

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