Matt Zuvella runs anywhere between 50 and 150 different brand awareness campaigns on TikTok in any given month via his California-based creator agency, FamePick. They were highly successful. Until some of them weren’t.
A few months back, Zuvella first started seeing issues involving videos promoting brands in the gray area of social media — services that aren’t illegal, but are seen by some as problematic, such as energy drinks or dating apps — were suddenly reaching far fewer people than normal.
The seemingly throttled videos tended to tag the company sponsoring them or offer some kind of discount. “Those are pretty easy to identify as sponsored posts, so to speak,” says Zuvella. “It got to the point where almost whole industries got hit pretty hard.” Videos promoting crypto brands suddenly saw plummeting views; the same happened with sponsored content for energy drinks.
“TikTok is trying to walk the thin line of what gets shown.”
“TikTok is trying to walk the thin line of what gets shown,” Zuvella speculates. “TikTok is a teenager-skewed app, moreso than Instagram, and they don’t want to run into any regulations around what gets shown to teenagers and what doesn’t.” The changes were deleterious for FamePick, which Zuvella claims lost around $100,000 of TikTok marketing deals — only some of which they were able to port over to other platforms.
Zuvella isn’t the only one complaining. Nor is limiting the reach of videos promoting energy drinks or the latest cryptocurrency craze the end of the problems creators have with TikTok.
A series of videos went viral on marketing TikTok in November, alleging that the platform banned comments including words like “bio,” “Instagram,” “website,” and “link” — all of which could theoretically be used by creators to push their fans to a creator’s presence on other platforms. “Any phrases that could potentially drive people away from TikTok and to a different platform are now being banned from seeing [sic] from your audience’s perspective,” the personality presenting the video claims.
By way of evidence, staff at Morgan Branding, the Warrington, U.K.–based marketing agency that posted the videos, left comments like “Check out our website” and “Link in bio” on a video of theirs, then logged into a separate account. When they viewed the video they posted, the comments were not displayed, an explainer TikTok showed.
The theory behind the videos is simple, and one that intuitively is correct: TikTok likes to control its ecosystem more than any other platform. From establishing a “creator council” of representatives to hear opinions from those posting on the platform to hosting its own Creator Marketplace, where brands and creators can connect and converse to broker deals, it likes to have oversight and control of what’s happening on its platform — shutting out the third parties that thrived in the YouTube era of online video.
Callum Morgan, director of Morgan Branding, declined an interview request unless he had copy approval of anything that would be published. Asked why he would require copy approval — something no respectable journalist or media outlet provides — Morgan told Input via email: “[C]urrently, we have a good relationship with [TikTok]. Losing access to the platform for us or our clients would be devastating.”
Who’s to blame?
Others on the platform also have questions about whether videos and comments are censored. Brendan Gahan, partner and chief social officer at New York ad agency Mekanism, posts regular videos to his 98,400 followers on TikTok. “Anything I’ve done referencing Snapchat, in particular, has dramatically underperformed to such a degree that it really stands out,” he says.
“It's totally possible those TikToks just weren’t of interest to my audience — or just weren't very good,” he adds. But Gahan questions whether something else is at play.
“We know TikTok's AI is top notch,” he says. Pointing to a recent New York Times piece that claims TikTok suppresses “likebait,” Gahan says it’s not out of the realm of possibility that TikTok could intervene. “They actually scan, somehow, content that makes explicit requests for engagement or likes and then demote that content,” he says.
Jules Montgomery, a PR expert from Detroit who posts digital creative TikToks to 284,000 followers on the app, is likewise credulous about the concept of comment or video text banning. “I do know that the algorithm or the AI picks up on what you caption your video and the hashtags you use, and even the closed captions within your video,” she says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some sort of filter for something about Instagram or YouTube.”
“I feel like I’ve been largely shadowbanned the whole autumn.”
London-based algorithmic censorship academic and pole dancer Carolina Are, who has previously been censored by TikTok, likewise feels that such censorship occurs. Are believes she’s had comments censored for including words like “shit,” “ew,” and “naughty.”
“I feel like I’ve been largely shadowbanned the whole autumn, and yes, I haven’t been approached by brands since,” says Are. “Other polers” — pole dancers — “have felt the same, and we’re actively removing pole-related hashtags from our posts. Sometimes it helps.”
A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment on whether the app censors comments along the lines of those mentioned by Morgan Branding.
Of course, it’s possible that many of the worries about shadowbanning can be explained away by innocuous answers. FamePick’s issues, for instance, may be caused by a policy change banning content inappropriate to TikTok’s young audience. (Zuvella understands why the policy changes happen, but wishes they were enacted more transparently. “TikTok should be sharing why they made the changes, and they don’t,” he says. “They just update their terms of service, then you try to run a campaign, and it gets banned.”)
Gahan’s underperforming videos about Snapchat may just be what he says: not striking the right tone with his audience. And as for Morgan Branding’s pronouncements about comment censorship? Input has learned that TikTok’s spam filters work a little more proactively on Morgan Branding’s account since the company’s profile had previous issues with spam.
Whatever the case, in the chase for eyeballs, digital creators will often look at declining views and wonder who’s to blame — them or the algorithm. And unless TikTok clarifies what’s going on, the whispers about shadowbanning will no doubt continue.