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TikTok and consent: When innocent people become the content

Matty Ennis/YJI

Maghull, UK – It’s funny how a 30-second video clip can send you down a rabbit hole that ends in questioning the very idea of consent and autonomy in the digital age.

Like so many people, my TikTok ‘For You’ page is currently dominated by videos of Taylor Swift’s ‘Eras Tour,’ but one recurring type made me think. These were videos of security guards at the concert singing along while working, often paired with comments joking about them being secret Swifties or giving Taylor herself a run for her money.

Although these videos are in no way mocking these security guards, it did give me pause. While yes, a concert should be a fun place where you can capture the moment, ultimately this is still someone doing their job and being recorded at work without consent.

After scrolling through TikTok with this in mind, the phenomenon of people filming strangers became unavoidable and it occurred to me just how large a percentage of creators’ content is that of unconsenting members of the public. This can range from videos capturing moments of human life or joke videos where creators say or do something strange to a member of the public and film their reaction to more insidious acts of humiliating people for doing things they perceive as strange in public.

One well-intentioned yet disturbing genre of these videos are the ‘people in love in public’ category. Intended to be heart-warming and wholesome, these videos entail montages of different couples displaying actions of affection in public captured by an onlooker, often littered with clips of older people holding hands set to the sound of love songs or quotes from 2003’s Love Actually.

While this may seem innocent, it’s hard to shake the distinctly dystopian feeling that it is also immensely twisted and unnatural.

When something becomes normalized, we forget to question it, but in reality these are videos of private moments between people who gave no consent and had no knowledge that they were being filmed but are now being exploited for content that could very plausibly gain millions of views from anyone around the world.

In the process of creating these videos, it doesn’t seem to occur to the creators that these people may not want to be on camera.

Anything could be happening in these unwilling TikTok star’s lives that is not given the slightest consideration before filming. They may be grieving, having a particularly difficult day or suffering from anxiety and barely wishing to be seen by people in real life, never mind existing forever online for millions of people.

When we look at this from a non-heteronormative perspective, even more issues are raised.

A queer couple may be comfortable showing small and seemingly private acts of affection with each other in public places where they believe nobody they know can see them, yet when these intimate expressions are ripped out of their personal bubble and shared on social media, this could create an unsafe environment when they return home to potentially un-supportive family members who may have seen the video.

While this is a very specific projection of a particularly damaging scenario, it is demonstrative of the ways in which human lives are invariably different. It can’t be assumed that everyone’s distinct situation is safe to be broadcast online.

What is perhaps even more worrying is the comments under these videos. While there is occasional scrutiny, the general mood of these comments is about how beautiful these videos are, not even questioning the issues of consent.

Another example of the ubiquity and acceptance unconsented filming comes from TikTok creator Pawluk, in a video for the trend #RandomActsOfKindness. In the video, the camera is set up so that it is secretly recording an older lady sitting alone drinking coffee as he asks her to hold a bunch of flowers for him while he retrieves something from his bag before walking away, allowing her to keep the flowers and telling her to have a great day.

Comments under the video gushed about the ‘wholesome’ nature of this man ‘making her day’ such as one commenter who wrote, “My heart! That made her feel so good and it looks like she might have needed it.”

But Maree, the woman featured in the video, had no knowledge she was being filmed and likely did not want to be seen in this way by the 59 million people who viewed the TikTok. In an interview with ABC Radio Melbourne, she expressed her frustration at the ‘patronizing’ and ‘dehumanizing’ presentation of her as a tragic and lonely old lady who needed flowers from a stranger.

Maree stated, “He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn’t.”

This is a further example of exploitation by creators seeking to profit from presenting themselves as benevolent and creating artificially heart-warming content to attract views, assuming they have complete dominion over footage and presentation of unsuspecting people.

When we leave our houses each day we are consenting to being seen in public for a brief moment, but this is entirely different to being immortalized in this way forever for people who have the ability to pause, zoom in, attach narratives and inspect every aspect of a person who only intended to be seen in passing.

Many of these TikToks take place on public transport. As a regular train-user, there are many days in which I feel comfortable being seen on a short daily commute to work, yet would be mortified if this version of myself was captured forever on TikTok without my consent.

Another common location for unconsenting videos are gyms, where fitness influencers will video themselves without eliminating other gym-goers from the background or even film other people in the gym to mock them. This adds a tangible level of threat to people who may already feel uncomfortable who could now have a version of themselves at their most unflattering being captured for eternity online.

This widespread use and acceptance of unconsenting footage is pervasive to the point it is even accepted when used on children. I recently stumbled across a video someone had taken of a young girl and her father dancing together at different points throughout a Harry Styles concert, commenting on how the father had created a ‘core memory’ for her. I searched through the comments section and could only see praise and not one person commenting on the fact that, while yes the video is heart-warming, someone has repeatedly filmed a child at a concert without informing them and then posted it to social media where people with any intentions could access it.

But these videos are not just of members of the public. There is a particular prevalence of unconsenting videos of workers, especially low paid service workers such as baristas, wait staff and store clerks.

A recent example of this is a viral video where a man associated with far-right ideology films a Target employee – a store known for its LGBTQ+ Pride merchandise in June – as he hounds her and asks if she supports their ‘Satanic Pride propaganda’ to which she responds sarcastically that she supports both Satan and Pride and asks if she can help him with anything else.

This video has been shared rapidly and while most of those sharing it are in support of her witty and quick response and demanding she get a raise, collectively these videos have now received millions of views regardless of whether this worker wanted her image shared.

This is not an isolated incident. Whether it’s pranks or customers raising complaints, TikTok is filled with videos of workers.

From a perspective of class consciousness, in most of these videos, the content creators seem to take a stance of superiority over these workers, exploiting a power imbalance in which the worker is required to deal with customers while they are being filmed but are not allowed to take out their phone to record them back.

As a front-facing worker myself, I find this particularly frustrating to see.

Working in these types of environments can be stressful and tiring – certainly not a state in which most people would want to be seen by potentially millions of people.

It is uniquely exploitative that people can earn views and possibly money through harassing someone who is simply trying to earn a minimum wage.

Another exploitative brand of TikTok videos are the ‘street interviews’ in which a TikTok creator will pass a mic and pose a question to people passing by. While there is a certain level of consent here for the individual to engage with the interviewer, it is apparent that these videos are often heavily edited, particularly those involving women. To make the interviewee look unintelligent, the creator asks, for example, what country a certain flag represents. Then, they edit in a clip of an answer to a different question where the interviewee will say a continent or wildly different country.

In the ever-changing age of social media and technology, this raises the issue of ownership and autonomy of our own likeness, actions, image, and voice when everything we do can be recorded and everything we say can be edited.

This is happening in tandem with the rise of AI technology, which is currently being used by fans on social media to create entirely convincing replicas of celebrities’ voices that are being used in fake conversations. Does this mean that as a society we are at the precipice of having to let go of control over our own likeness and presentation completely?

While this may sound like a nightmarish future scenario, it can’t be understated how blurred the lines are becoming and how unregulated the online space is when it comes to consent.

While the UK’s Data Protection Act of 2018 protects people from an outright violation of privacy such as phone hacking, this does not include simply taking photo or video footage of someone in a public place, where, under the law, there is no expectation of privacy. Furthermore, while defamation law is intended to protect people if their image is used for nefarious intent, this is almost never actually carried out in online spaces.

This leads to a confusing situation in which traditional media establishments such as BBC News follow strict guidelines around informed consent – including calculating the harm and risk of filming – for live audiences of often around 3 million people, yet a video can be filmed in a completely misleading and non-consensual manner to be seen by 50 million plus viewers on TikTok with no regulation.

Similarly, schools across the country follow strict rules around parental consent to photograph children on school trips, yet these same children can be plastered on social media and exposed to the ruthlessness of the internet by strangers.

It’s clear that social media sites, particularly TikTok, need to ensure some level of  regulation for this uncharted territory.

While filming people without their consent is not illegal, social media sites do still have a responsibility to consider the safety and wellbeing of their users. We also know that sites such as TikTok can censor and remove content effectively. They are able to quickly identify and remove nudity, copyrighted material and certain words such as swears that prohibited on the app.

There is the issue of how exactly TikTok could regulate the use of unconsenting videos as while an algorithm can identify specific words or images within a video, it would require more investigation to distinguish between videos of those who have consented to being filmed versus those who haven’t. TikTok may have to employ the use of human workers surveying the site to check for this.

There is no clear solution to this issue and even trying to find a way to regulate consent in social media would be complicated and difficult.

Surely, though, the first step is for people to admit that this is a problem and think more critically about the content they consume and consider the human lives behind the 30-second videos we scroll past on our phone.

Matty Ennis is a Reporter and Illustrator with Youth Journalism International.

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