Letter to Microsoft and Walmart re: TikTok

September 2, 2020
Satya Nadella
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052

Doug McMillon
702 S.W. 8th Street
Bentonville, AR 72716

Mr. Nadella and Mr. McMillon,

We write to you on behalf of the more than 2.5 million parents across the United States that make up ParentsTogether to express our deep concern that right now, TikTok is not safe for our children, despite the fact that tens of millions of kids in America use the platform.

We’re writing to raise a number of concerns related to childrens’ vulnerability online and ask for your commitment to make TikTok a safe platform for kids should your acquisition bid move forward.

First, we appreciate that you have both been involved in professional and personal efforts to protect kids and advocate for their well being, whether it’s Microsoft’s Project Artemis or Mr. McMillon’s personal philanthropy and familial involvement in child welfare advocacy. Your potential acquisition of TikTok represents a golden opportunity to double down on that commitment by aggressively and proactively cracking down on the threats currently posed to kids on the platform.

We have identified a number of primary threats to children on TikTok, along with recommended steps you should take to address them. These threats, as outlined below, are related to child predators, privacy, pro-anorexia content, bullying, disinformation and glorifying violence.

Child predators and sexually exploitative communications: TikTok has come under fire for failing to crack down on a proliferation of child predators on the platform. Children as young as nine have received comments and messages that are sexual in nature from adults, and the platform has in some cases failed to remove the predators from the platform. Some of our members’ children have experienced this, including a 14 year-old girl with autism who was sent sexually explicit photographs on the platform.

Recommendation 1: Commit to aggressively cracking down on child predators, including permanently banning any individual who sends inappropriate messages or comments to children on the platform.

Privacy: TikTok has failed to comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), and flouted a Federal Trade Commission consent decree to settle previous violations. Specifically, it has continued to allow children under the age of 13 to post videos on its platform without parental consent, in violation of COPPA, putting them at risk of sexual exploitation and privacy violations.

Recommendation 2: Commit to fully complying with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and all provisions of the February 2019 consent decree.

Recommendation 3: Ensure that you are not collecting kids’ personal information without parental consent, in accordance with the law.

Pro-eating disorder and body shaming content: A Buzzfeed news investigation earlier this year found that TikTok’s ‘For You Page’ is littered with pro-anorexia, extreme dieting, and body shaming content in direct violation of the platform’s community guidelines. Videos encouraging children to fast for days, follow dangerous low-calorie diets, and set unrealistic and unhealthy weight goals can be found throughout the platform.

Recommendation 4: Commit to proactively monitoring and removing pro-eating disorder and body shaming content from the platform and providing medically sound resources to kids who search for pro-anorexia and weight-loss hashtags and search terms.

Bullying: Bullying of all kinds has long been rampant on TikTok. For example,the “new teacher challenge” – which is popular on TikTok right now – actively encourages children on the platform to bully, mock and laugh at people with disabilities. An August 31 search for the #NewTeacherChallenge hashtag indicates that such videos have been viewed more than 40 million times on the platform.

Recommendation 5: Enact a zero-tolerance policy against bullying on TikTok.

Disinformation: TikTok is a hotbed of disinformation and conspiracy theories on topics ranging from child trafficking and COVID-19 to the date of the 2020 presidential election. COVID-19 disinformation, which may encourage kids to underestimate the threat of the virus or engage in risky behavior, is particularly dangerous.

Recommendation 6: Commit to stopping the proliferation of dangerous conspiracy theories and disinformation on the platform, and lay out your plan for doing so.

Glorifying violence: Alongside disinformation, videos promoting and glorifying violence are thriving on TikTok in violation of the platform’s community guidelines, leaving young people on TikTok exposed. A June 2020 review by Media Matters found many TikTok videos with hundreds of thousands of views promoting and encouraging people to join the “boogaloo” movement – “an anti-government movement that advocates for a violent uprising.” As you may know, individuals associated with this movement have recently been involved in armed demonstrations and violent confrontations in Kenosha, WI and Portland, OR. Kids should be able to enjoy social media platforms without being targeted for recruitment into violent extremist movements.

Recommendation 7: Commit to removing all content that promotes violence and ban individuals who publish videos or comments containing such content.

Many of the types of content outlined above continue to receive broad exposure on TikTok despite clearly violating the platform’s community guidelines. As such, simply prohibiting problematic content is insufficient. It is incumbent on both of your companies to publicly commit to addressing these issues head on – and lay out your detailed and concrete plans for doing so – in advance of moving forward with an acquisition.

Your potential acquisition of TikTok’s U.S. operations represents a tremendous opportunity for each of your companies. But with that opportunity comes an enormous responsibility to address the numerous threats posed to kids on TikTok today. On behalf of our 2.5 million members, we’re calling on you today to ensure that a future TikTok under your leadership is a safe digital environment for kids.

Bethany Robertson and Justin Ruben
Co-Directors, ParentsTogether