Opinion: Influencer on TikTok: Before it was scary, it was exciting

Editor’s Note: Jake Novak is a writer, singer, actor and director in Los Angeles. The views expressed in this comment are his own. Read more CNN opinion pieces.


Last summer, I became a somewhat infamous figure on TikTok when a video I posted featuring myself on “Saturday Night Live” went viral — but not in the way I’d hoped. At first I was massively mocked and parodied, but the conversation quickly turned into vitriol and pure venom, resulting in a lengthy campaign of intimidation that included calls to kill myself.

TikTok has been at the center of the national debate recently, with lawmakers proposing a nationwide ban on the popular video-sharing app amid fears the China-based company may be collecting personal data of American users.

But as an online creator, I believe the real, undeniable problem with social media is that harassment and hate can spread on platforms like TikTok on a massive scale with alarming speed — and it seriously endangers the mental health of creators and of everyday users.

It’s up to social media companies to strengthen their content moderation practices to curb this behavior, and to ensure they do, the federal government should enforce more effective procedures to limit how hate can spread. scale quickly online.

In the wake of the “SNL” post, my notifications were flooded with harsh comments and videos of nastiness, from calls to action for users to bully me off the platform, to suggestions that I wasn’t bullied enough as a child. And when they had had enough of TikTok, these trolls found me on Instagram and YouTube — even my inactive Twitter — and bombarded me with more nasty comments, tweets and videos. Overall, the content I created quickly garnered millions of views and likes.

I immediately stopped posting on social media, and when my absence was noticed, the commentary turned to delusional thoughts, wondering if the negative attention had made me suicidal, creating the hashtag #RIPJakeNovak. Some users, perhaps encouraged by the hashtag, emailed me directly to tell me I should end my life if I hadn’t already.

This was my reality for months – all because of a video I posted that people thought wasn’t funny.

Social media creators know all too well that the platforms that give them their creative outlet, and in many cases their livelihood, can turn hostile at any time. Horror stories of users being mercilessly leaked and hacked — where identifying information such as physical addresses are published online, usually maliciously — are all too common. And recently, there has been a rise in attacks, where people falsely accuse someone of a made-up crime in order to send armed police to their home, a prank that can turn fatal.

My version came when users found out I was working as a performer at Disneyland and started coming there to film me and post the videos on TikTok. Captions often referred to the fact that I was alive, usually with disappointment or false relief. But from the other side of the lens, I became more afraid of what these people were saying about me.

Several of my colleagues received a message on Instagram that seemed to threaten my life, which meant that every video of me “in the wild” was not just a potential source of humiliation, but a beacon that let the entire Internet — including of those who wished me harm — I know my location in real time. However, there was no recourse: I was in a public position that allowed, even encouraged, anyone who wanted to film me at will. I was alone and exposed and scared.

But I still had to go to work. At every show, my anxiety was through the roof, wondering if that person calling my name was just a harmless jerk or planning to follow me into the parking lot. This fear stayed with me outside my workplace: in restaurants, grocery stores, at the car wash. I was sleeping on friends couches because I was afraid someone might find my home address. I couldn’t be sure how far it would go.

Is the Chinese government using TikTok to invade Americans’ privacy for political gain? Who knows. Are Americans using social media to harass their expats? You bastard.

TikTok’s community guidelines promise zero tolerance for users who are “shamed, intimidated or harassed”, acknowledging that such content “can cause serious psychological distress”. The platform claims to remove videos for harassment — many before they’re even reported — and that’s a good start. Some offensive comments and videos about me have indeed been removed in recent months. But that wasn’t before they got to me — and potentially influenced the creation of other annoying comments and videos.

I did not take to any social media platform to report the bullying I received. even if I had, it was so widespread I wouldn’t know where to start. Instead, to prevent this annoying hashtag from becoming a reality, I deleted all social networking apps from my phone. I have to install them again.

I know that as an entertainer — and especially as an Internet creator — I’m subject to people having and sharing opinions about me and my work. But what started as a discussion about me turned into sharp attacks on me. The first is reason, which is well within the realm of acceptable behavior towards a public figure. the latter is harassment, which it largely isn’t.

But not everyone who experiences cyberbullying is an internet personality who has opened up to public criticism. Many targets are everyday users who unwittingly find themselves in a competitive spotlight, and the results can be disastrous.

A 2018 review of 26 independent studies published between 1996 and 2017 (TikTok launched in September 2016) found that adults and youth are more than 2.5 times more likely to kill themselves when they’ve experienced cyberbullying, and the CDC says that levels of sadness and suicidal thoughts among teenage girls have “increased dramatically” over the past decade. The same 2021 study notes that 16% of high school students surveyed by the CDC said they had experienced “cyberbullying” through social media or texting in the past year.

We saw a tragic convergence of this just last month, when 14-year-old Adriana Kuch killed herself two days after a video of the attack at her high school in New Jersey was shared on TikTok. She told her father before she died that she didn’t want to be “that girl who gets beaten up on video and made fun of.”

Social media companies don’t lack the tools to deal with the harassment that can proliferate on their platforms, but they don’t seem to be using them as well as they should.

Some sites reportedly use a form of “shadow banning,” where access to a post is blocked for community violations, but the practice is notoriously opaque, and algorithms can misinterpret allowed content as verbatim. Companies such as Meta, parent of Facebook and Instagram, employ multiple moderators who screen content around the clock, but moderators say they have made errors of judgment due to confusion and ever-changing policies. Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, which advises on issues such as suicide prevention and mental health, was disbanded late last year. It doesn’t take much to understand why stories like mine – and many much more heartbreaking – permeate the internet.

Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t want TikTok to be banned — in fact, I hope it isn’t. I loved being a creator: making videos all the time, the challenge of pushing myself in new directions on a dime, the thrill of seeing strangers all over the world connect with a song I wrote minutes after it was shot in the bedroom my. I loved seeing the work fellow creators would make and being inspired by it. I miss TikTok. Before it was scary, it was exciting.

That was the promise of social media: a place where we could go to talk and share and laugh and think and come together. These are digital spaces where everyone is supposed to feel welcome, yet I and so many others continue to leave them out of fear for our physical safety. These platforms have had nearly two decades to deliver on their promise and have failed time and time again. Maybe it’s time to stop hoping they will.

Senator Marco Rubio recently stated that “the federal government has yet to take meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok.” But if legislation is passed to ban the app due to Chinese privacy concerns, that statement will still stand. Even if TikTok disappears from American life entirely, online hate and bullying will continue on other platforms until the government imposes stronger, broader, and more effective content moderation on social media specifically designed to protect us from harassment.

To the possible chagrin of those whose posts cheered it, my story fortunately did not end in suicide. But it’s abundantly clear that the next victim’s story could have a far more deadly conclusion — in fact, it already has.

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