The staffers at TikTok can tap a “heating” button on the social media app’s backend to manually prioritize certain videos to reach higher number of views, according to a Forbes report citing company sources and documents.
The popular video-based social media platform owned by China-based ByteDance has been subject to clamp downs from U.S. federal and state governments over privacy but has offered to open its algorithms to oversight. The U.S. government ban late last year — or the threatened EU ban — are contentious issues, yet TikTok’s robust innovative features are reverberating across the media industry as business booms for the app.
According to the Forbes report, TikTok relies on a special feature that enables staff to manually increase the visibility of certain videos — not just allow an algorithm to automatically decide what goes viral. Further, Forbes reported that the app’s workers “secretly hand-pick specific videos and supercharge their distribution, using a practice known internally as ‘heating.’”
TikTok’s parent firm ByteDance employees and even contractors have input on what content to promote, according to documents obtained by Forbes. This is laid out in a memo called TikTok Heating Policy, which instructs employees how to use the practice to lure influencers and push out content based on subjective personal preferences.
A TikTok spokesperson told Forbes the company does promote “some videos to help diversify the content experience and introduce celebrities and emerging creators to the TikTok community. Only a few people, based in the U.S., have the ability to approve content for promotion in the U.S., and that content makes up approximately .002% of videos in For You feeds.”
The “For You Page,” which features customized content culled via a proprietary algorithm, predicts users’ interest based on their in-app activity
The heating tool amounts to “operation intervention” that helps boost videos into the “For You” feed so that they can hit “certain number of video views,” Forbes reported, citing an internal document titled MINT Heating Playbook.
The “heated” videos account for 1 to 2 percent of TikTok’s total daily video views, a large swath that carries “significant impact on overall core metrics,” Forbes wrote.
While adapted by rival platforms such as Google and Meta’s Facebook — who have disclosed such practices — heating is a new revelation for TikTok. For their part, Silicon Valley giants worked closely with governmental public health and election-focused organizations to push information that provided vaccine updates during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance.
Forbes’ sources described TikTok employees’ use of heating as a mechanism to lure influencers and brands because the inflated videos’ view count bolstered their desire to partner with the video sharing app. The method may have “potentially benefitted some influencers and brands — those with whom TikTok has sought business relationships — at the expense of others with whom it has not.”
There were reportedly instances where heating button privileges were used by TikTok employees to heat theirs or their spouses’ account, actions that violated company policy. Some have also heated the TikTok accounts of people they have personal relationships with, and in one case, a video garnered more than 3 million views, according to Forbes.