[Rappler Investigates] Dangers of TikTok

Chay F. Hofileña

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

[Rappler Investigates] Dangers of TikTok

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

'Depending on what a TikTok follower chooses to watch and take seriously, and depending too on his or her level of knowledge about the extent of disinformation on social media platforms, danger can either be at arm’s length or much closer'

If you’ve been browsing content on TikTok (yeah, it’s mostly the Gen Zers who’re on the platform, but no longer exclusively these days), you’ve probably noticed a proliferation of content that raises red flags and antennae especially if you keep a healthy dose of skepticism. 

Depending on what a TikTok follower chooses to watch and take seriously, and depending too on his or her level of knowledge about the extent of disinformation on social media platforms, danger can either be at arm’s length or much closer. 

One of our Aries Rufo Journalism fellows – a very young and promising campus journalist named Jerry Yubal Jr., the executive editor of Amaranth, a campus publication of the Visayas State University in Leyte – did some sleuthing online. He scrutinized TikTok accounts over a period of two months and watched over 60 videos on the platform. Among the absurdities he noticed? A supposed “pharmacist” promoting a product that claimed to cure gout IF a patient takes 25 tablets per hour or a total of 600 tablets a day. If that’s not enough of a huge wildly fluttering red flag, I don’t know what is.

Citing Statista figures in 2023, Jerry reported that Filipinos are the “eighth biggest TikTok users in the world,” numbering close to 50 million. Close to half of them are young, belonging to the 18-24 age group. Any unscrupulous seller out to take advantage of a rapidly growing market that allows the sale of unregistered and unregulated medical products on its platform is bound to make money. The platform itself, in this case, TikTok, will invariably benefit too from users, whether sellers or buyers, or simply people out to be entertained.

Health Assistant Secretary Dr. Albert Francis Domingo rightfully warns that if we “prioritize sales, clout, and the fame that comes with the number of likes and follows, without checking what we’re saying – or worse, knowing that it’s wrong but we still do it anyway – then we might actually be killing people.” I surmise that this is addressed to both TikTok and platform users alike.

TikTok’s response. Initially refusing to comment on the story, TikTok responded a week after publication. What did it do? To its credit, it took down all the videos cited by Jerry in his report, including the account that was marketing the astounding gout cure. But what the incident also shows is that while TikTok has policies that are supposed to guide users, they’re not completely bulletproof. 

In the age of artificial intelligence and deepfakes, violators are bound to evade technology and human moderators used for detection and regulation of dangerous content. Moderating greed and genuinely wanting to minimize harm to humans will go a long way in making sure social media platforms remain safe for their users.

Conflict of interest. Speaking of greed, many skeptics have learned to have very low expectations of government officials. But a recent investigative story by reporters Lian Buan and Iya Gozum will probably push the bar of expectations even lower, if not infuriate those who care about fisherfolk. They remain among the poorest Filipinos earning only about P363 a day ($6.45). 

Lian and Iya uncovered how top officials of regulatory agencies involved in tracking compliance by big fishers with rules have brazenly defied conflict of interest standards. (READ: Top officials with private interests spoil effort to track big fishers)

What is conflict of interest? Journalists know this by heart – it’s a situation where loyalties are split and compete for attention or sympathy. In the case of journalists, for example, loyalty should lie with readers and the public first and foremost, rather than owners or advertisers, big business, government agencies, or even family members. A situation where a journalist finds herself or himself being more sympathetic to someone or something other than the public ought to be avoided to ensure that ethical standards are upheld.

It’s no different for government officials, more so because public servants like them are paid using taxpayers’ money. Government service is public service.

Persistent digging over a three-month period unearthed family ties between the former head of the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) that’s tasked to issue unique numbers to fishing vessels to allow government regulators like the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to track them through Vessel Monitoring System (VMS) trackers. BFAR is mandated to prevent “illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing” precisely to protect small fisherfolk.

The NTC head who was appointed by then-president Rodrigo Duterte was Gamaliel Cordoba, now appointed chair of the Commission on Audit under the Marcos administration. Totally oblivious to a conflict-of-interest situation, he issued in 2021 a memorandum that suspended the release of the unique numbers that rendered the VMS system useless.

Family ties. What was more shocking than this? Cordoba, it was discovered, is married to someone whose family partly owns a commercial fishing company, Mercidar Fishing Corporation, that obviously benefited from the NTC memo. Requests for comment were met with silence. 

It gets even more interesting – and enraging – when you see more intertwined and twisted interests of other government officials. Read the full story and its concluding part, Big fishers encroach on small fisherfolk’s municipal waters, to better understand the desperate plight of Filipino fisherfolk. Who do they turn to if government won’t protect them? You can watch the live discussion about this two-part series on Newsbreak Chats: How gov’t officials, big operators conspired vs fisherfolk.

Intersex Filipinos. Another story about a little-known-about and little-understood issue is being intersex. No, it’s not about gender choice, sexual orientation, or being afflicted with a disease. It’s a condition that some are born with, in some cases, requiring lifetime medication.

Michelle Abad, who writes about social issues, tells the story of Hero, who was born with congenital adrenal hyperplasia or CAH. Intersex people, according to the United Nations human rights office, may be born with sex characteristics that “do not fit the typical binary notions of male or female bodies.” This in itself presents challenges heightened by expensive medical requirements in some cases, such as Hero’s.

Learn more about intersex people here: Refusing to be invisible: Intersex Filipinos struggle to be seen, understood. – Rappler.com

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Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.