TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, created fake accounts with content from Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms and posted them on Flipagram in 2017, according to a new report published today by BuzzFeed News. . The report says the company took 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 said the scraping began shortly after the company acquired Flipagram in January 2017. Internal documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News indicate the scraping was considered as a “growth hack” for the company. An employee said ByteDance’s goal was to fetch over 10,000 videos per day.
Two of the employees said the scraping was used to train and inform ByteDance’s “For You” algorithm, which is currently used today by TikTok and its Chinese equivalent, Douyin. Employees say ByteDance was looking to train the algorithm on US-based content. The report also states that ByteDance was scraping and downloading content from Musical.ly, which would later become TikTok once ByteDance acquired the company in 2017.
BuzzFeed News sent ByteDance a list of allegations along with questions, to which ByteDance responded: “ByteDance acquired Flipagram in 2017 and operated it, and then Vigo, for a short time. Flipagram and Vigo went out of business years ago and are not connected to any current ByteDance products.
Internal documents include references to the data retrieved and the reasons why the company was doing it. In a document, an employee explained that the recovered content could be used to test what types of videos performed best on the platform. The employee also noted that current users can imitate the content to enhance their own videos and gain popularity.
Former employees said some people noticed their social media content was posted on Flipagram and contacted the company. Employees were told to delete the fake accounts or give control of the account to the person who filed the complaint, according to the report.
Flipagram was founded in 2013 and allowed users to create and share short videos as a precursor to TikTok.
The practice of removing content as growth piracy, as this report claims, was not unusual for services operating at the time. But it does raise questions about whether TikTok’s algorithms were trained using video content from competing apps. (BuzzFeed was able to get a comment from former Flipagram CTO Brian Dilley, who denied any scraping had taken place.)
Flipagram’s app gained popularity among younger users and was at one point considered a major threat to Instagram. But while ByteDance learned many lessons from Flipagram, it ultimately opted to merge Musical.ly with TikTok and fired the Flipagram team in February 2018.