TikTok’s parent company ByteDance made fake accounts with content taken from Instagram, Snapchat and other social media platforms and posted them on Flipagram in 2017, according to a new report today from BuzzFeed News. The report says the company took videos, usernames, pictures and more from the social media platforms and uploaded them to the app without users’ consent or knowledge.
BuzzFeed News spoke with four former ByteDance employees who say the scraping began shortly after the company acquired Flipagram in January 2017. Internal documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News indicate that the scraping was seen as a “growth hack” for the company. One employee said that ByteDance’s goal was to scrape more than 10,000 videos a day.
Two of the employees said that 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. The employees say ByteDance was looking to train the algorithm on U.S.-based content. The report also indicates that ByteDance was scraping and uploading content from Musical.ly, which would later become TikTok once ByteDance acquired the company in 2017.
BuzzFeed News sent ByteDance a list of the allegations along with questions, to which ByteDance responded: “ByteDance acquired Flipagram in 2017 and operated it, and subsequently Vigo, for a short time. Flipagram and Vigo ceased operations years ago and aren’t connected to any current ByteDance products.”
The internal documents include references to the scraped data and reasons explaining why the company was doing so. In one document, an employee explained that the scraped content could be used to test which types of videos performed the best on the platform. The employee had also noted that current users could mimic the content to enhance their own videos and gain popularity.
The former employees said that some people had noticed their social media content was being posted on Flipagram and had reached out to the company. Employees were told to either delete the fake accounts or give control of the account to the person who filed the complaint, the report claims.
Flipagram was founded in 2013 and allowed users to create and share short videos as something of a TikTok pre-cursor.
The practice of scraping content as a growth hack, as this report claims took place, was not unusual for services operating at the time. But it does lead to questions as to whether TikTok’s algorithms were trained using video content from competitor apps. (BuzzFeed was able to get a comment from former Flipagram CTO Brian Dilley, who denied any scraping took place.)
Flipagram’s app garnered popularity among young users and at one point was considered a major threat to Instagram. But while ByteDance took many learnings from Flipagram, it ultimately chose to merge Musical.ly with TikTok and laid off the Flipagram team in February 2018.