Endless scrolling on TikTok has left me tired and bored. In need of something new to spice up my social feeds and provide the emotional fulfilment that only short-form video content can do, I decided to try out the Chinese version of the app, Douyin.
We hear a lot of rhetoric in the West about oppressive regimes in the East, and its extensive limits on Chinese citizens’ personal freedom. As I prepared for my digital adventure, it was safe to say that I was definitely intrigued to see how my experience on Douyin might differ from TikTok.
TikTok itself is far from a wholly safe experience, having been cited as giving rise to depression in teenagers, and contributing to a decline in children’s self confidence. SCREENSHOT’s own investigation into the app highlighted just how easy it was to find yourself radicalised by the ever evolving For You Page’s algorithm.
Let’s first lay down the parameters for my journey into the video void. We’re unfortunately unable to make it out of the shallow end of the For You Page (FYP), owing to the fact that you need a Chinese ID to create an account. In other words, this escapade will be untailored as I’m unable to get into the underbelly of the app—if one even exists on Douyin.
Also, I lack even a basic understanding of Mandarin, so this reality (paired with the lack of access to a proper account) should make for a very interesting tour across the front-facing videos from the Chinese mainland. What is being shown to fresh faces who are scrolling through the app for the first time? Let’s get to it.
The first thing I’m greeted with as I load up the web version of the app (which is the easiest way onto Douyin) is what looks like a music video directed by Wong Kar-wai. A fisheye lens follows a model as she dances and poses around her city. Nothing massive to report as of yet.
Scrolling onwards, I’m bombarded by clips of random early noughties trash flicks, with a calm-voiced narrator who I assume is explaining the plot of the film to viewers. This reminds me a lot of the content I once saw using a fresh account in the West.
The kind of content that begins to pop up the most on my initial scroll is strange videos of very idealised models looking moody among a variety of different backdrops. It’s hard to tell if these are ads, scenes from music videos or just straight-up influencer montages. I scroll through.
After sampling some anime clips, short videos displaying scenes of cherry blossoms in the wind, and intricate store signs for different shops, I see something quintessentially different to what I’d expect to come across on TikTok.
A short clip shows several men sitting and enjoying what appears to be a rooftop barbeque, liquor in hand, singing as the camera pans across the sizable banquet before them. Why don’t we sit around singing with the bros in the West? This one video definitely begins to steer me down a path which is much more wholesome than I was initially expecting.
The journey continues. Cooking videos have started to appear, and honestly, Western TikTok’s answer to food porn has absolutely nothing on Chinese street food.
Something that becomes increasingly apparent the more I scroll, is just how similar Douyin content is to what I’ve been used to over on TikTok. Yes, there are some cultural differences, but there are also some overwhelmingly universal themes: food videos, cute pet reactions, and movie clips cut up into short, easily digestible snippets.
On the other hand, the choice of audio is vastly different. Most background tracks are wholesome, uplifting songs, and while I don’t understand the lyrics, I can only assume the vocals are of a pure nature.
This next video of an all-boy dance troupe killing it has to be seen to be believed. I’m completely obsessed with how truly camp and high-energy this is.
This next video caught my immediate attention. Initially, I thought this was a sketch and so I tried to follow along using Google Translate’s photo translation capabilities. From what I was able to decipher, a man picks up what looks to be three prostitutes and attempts to sell one to a friend.
It might have been the shoddy translation from Google, but it became quickly apparent that this wasn’t actually a sketch at all and more of a strange scenario, perhaps designed to promote positive values among China’s citizens? From what I gathered, there seemed to be a message in here somewhere about self-worth and respect as the friend ends the video seemingly in love with one of the girls, while the pimp in a gaudy gold chain is dismayed at losing a girl.
I wasn’t able to fully come to grips with what was actually going on in the video, but it did strike me as vastly different to the content we get on our own version of the app.
In a country that’s globally known for the strict morality guidelines it imposes on its citizens, I also wasn’t expecting to see these kinds of suggestive model videos show up on my feed either.
Not long after, it became apparent that my feed was failing to evolve in any meaningful direction without a certified account, and thus my time on Douyin was officially at an end.We were a long way from home, but it really didn’t feel too alienating—outside of not being able to understand anything of course.
I can only speculate at how different the app would be if I had the ability to manipulate its algorithm properly. Either way, my surface level observation of the platform showed a great similarity between the two versions of the app. Dogs, dancing and dining made up the bulk of the content, with the biggest difference being the music that partnered with my overall visual experience.
If you were interested in trying China’s version of the app, you won’t get far without a Chinese ID. However, hopefully this mini experiment may have given you a suitable peek into what else is out there, and potentially even an urge to explore yourself.
TikTok, a place of algorithmic beauty. A social media site that knows exactly what you want, when you want it. Barely any searching is done on the platform, all you’ve got to do is simply lean back and let your For You Page (FYP) take the reins. But what happens when TikTok’s AI-powered feed starts pushing you down the wrong path?
What was once a service for watching cats go viral and having content creators lose their shirt, is now a place that is pushing toxic behaviours, fake news, and problematic right-wing rhetoric. Without even realising it, you’ll find yourself radicalised.
This is one of the very real dangers of TikTok, an app that takes care of everything for its users. All you need to do is prepare for a thumb-cramp from scrolling too much. While it’s undeniable that the platform has a lot to offer, it can also promote problematic views and ideas targeted towards impressionable brains. In order to shed light on just how easy it is for someone to end up on the wrong side of TikTok, I took it upon myself to investigate, armed with nothing more than a burner account and some hours to kill.
So, how willing is TikTok to show me more radicalising, inflammatory content just to keep me scrolling? Short answer? Very.
Let’s start with some basic ground rules. A fresh account is a must—I’m using one with hopefully very little expository information about myself through cross-website data collection and cookies. Next, I’m planning on scrolling through my FYP only, seeing how far I can get purely by interacting with this feature’s algorithm. This means that searching for any toxic or alt-right phrases in the app’s search bar is off-limit as I want to keep the process as organic as possible.
My ideal end result is to be fed something on my FYP that’s either incredibly inflammatory or possibly endangering. I’d also like to see if the algorithm does in fact show me a consistent stream of right-wing content—more specifically, offensive content that incites hate and perpetuates a very narrow and exclusive worldview.
If I can get to a spot like that on TikTok, I’ll call it a job well done. So let’s get into it.
My first step into this experiment consists primarily of an unfiltered FYP with an algorithm that doesn’t know me yet—that doesn’t quite understand what it is I’m looking for. ‘Satisfying’ sand-cutting videos, stitched with other people’s content, and daytime television clips plague my bottomless feed. I can’t seem to find a hook yet. An anime blind unboxing video perhaps?
Side note: anime is often co-opted online by alt-right communities and suspect individuals—so maybe this is a good way in. I press like and watch the unboxing clip more times than I’d like to admit.
I make sure to scroll cellularly so that I can curate the page a bit more with the “not interested” option. TikTok seems to think I’m very interested in police clips. I feel like I’m on to something with this content, so I start chasing it even more.
Almost immediately, bingo. I’m shown very shallow British military propaganda followed by a short sound bite from Piers Morgan’s Donald Trump interview. This is probably going to be easier than I thought. I make sure to engage with the comments—liking and saving the video as I hover over the clip. I want to show the algorithm that I’m interested and engaged in the content it’s feeding me.
A new day begins and I’m fired up and ready to get scrolling. The first thing I see? An esoteric montage of nihilistic, poignant clips which begins with a segment from Joe Rogan’s podcast. Rogan, of course, is renowned for both his personal controversies as well as his by-proxy endorsement of overtly problematic individuals which he features on his Spotify podcast. This video is surprisingly intense, but I think it’s a step in the right direction.
The next thing on the feed is an equally doomism-inspired montage highlighting the dangers of mass media consumption. I’m getting warmer.
As I continue scrolling, I’m hit with an essay video about Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, a former math teacher-turned-domestic terrorist who was responsible for the deaths of three people before his capture in 1996. His manifesto has since become a left-wing liberal obsession in recent years—thanks to the man’s distaste for the advancements of society and a desire to return to simpler, more primitive life.
Oh dear, it seems like we’re going the wrong way now. This is radicalising content, sure, but on the other end of the spectrum. TikTok now knows I’m ready to take a metaphorical leap off of the edge but it’s not sure which building yet. I was looking for right-wing propaganda and brainwashing, instead I’ve found myself bathing in a beacon of radical leftism. I suppose this is a sort of early success for the experiment, but not where I wanted to be exactly. I notify the app that I’m not interested and move on.
Here we go—my FYP has organically shown me an Andrew Tate video. I never thought I’d be so happy to see this bald bastard’s face on my feed. The clip shows the former kickboxer-turned-phoney philosopher talking about how dangerous London is, a typical talking point of Tories. With 100,000 likes on the clip, I engage with it as much as I can and move on.
What follows is a slew of high-profile US marine compilation videos, possible Russian psychological operations (PSYOPs) inflaming the current unstable global climate, more Tate clips—one from an account called MasculineInfluence—another Morgan appearance, this time of him talking about fat shaming, and a video titled “pure Brexit tackles.”
I take my time watching a clip of the overtly sketchy Hustlers University founder talking about how great England used to be. He stokes the old colonial flame as much as he can—it’s quite sad to watch honestly. But it’s all part of the mission here.
About 70 per cent of my FYP right now is some form of Tate video, a man who took the world by storm over the summer as his problematic opinions and thoughts reached an impressionable generation—and continues to do so with his reinstated Twitter account following Technoking Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform. But is this enough of a radicalisation?
It’s close, but I’m looking for something stronger, something that could push someone a step too far.
Sigma male content follows, a North Korean propaganda video next. Wait, what? I’m actually in awe of the mix of content I’m being fed on this account. On what basis is North Korea getting through in the first place? This video has 2.4 million likes, by the way.
After swiping on, I’m starting to get subtle hints of racism now. A football video appears comparing female footballers’ celebrations to their male counterparts, the joke being that the male footballers’ celebration shown is someone doing a Nazi salute after scoring. Comments supporting the salute can be found underneath the video. I save and interact.
I seem to be getting closer to a darker, more extreme end of the platform as more ambiguous, racial, and edgy jokes begin to surface. It’s beginning to get exhausting to sift through this much trash but I’m determined.
I’m also seeing videos imploring Britain to return to the way it was as a colonial power. Clearly nobody did too well in history class, given that we were one of the most oppressive powers at play during the time of colonialism. It’s obvious that the people engaging with this content are only steps away from a radical edge.
Steven Crowder clips from his ‘Change My Mind’ series show up. Then religious content begins to creep through. TikTok thinks I’m a young, right-wing, religious conservative at this point. The red flags are firmly planted. I’m now desperately searching for the next clip that will bring the experiment home.
A video claiming Israel is the “one group you shouldn’t talk about,” praising Kanye West for speaking up. This upsets me, but I’m at the door of anti-semitism now and I’m ready to see myself in.
Looks like I’ve made it. Videos talking about a global cabal that controls the world order are slowly seeping in—a cabal that wants to take away your personal freedoms and warp your perceptions. The next clip is one pointing out the fallacies of the LGBTQ+ movement. Comments are turned off on this one. Next up is an inflammatory video calling left-leaning liberal people the real fascists. Accounts promoting an “escape from the matrix” are more abundant than ever.
I do come across one that actually makes me laugh out loud. It’s a conspiracy video talking about nuclear explosions on Mars millions of years ago. It’s pretty out there and possibly taking me off track but I can’t help but watch it through.
Finally, a genuine nationalist and racist appears on my feed. It’s an account that looks a lot like a PSYOP, honestly. It’s someone masquerading as a nationalist’s ideal woman. The TikTok that ended up on my FYP is a slideshow with a blurry selfie of herself first, followed by screenshots from right-wing news and world happenings. “Europe is finally waking up,” she says. Her account is filled with videos warning of a great replacement—a conspiracy peddled by fascists and racists. I’d finally seen something truly disgusting, and it felt awful.
After two days of consistent scrolling, I can successfully consider myself radicalised on TikTok. Every video on my feed is some form of right-wing media or targeted harassment aimed at the LGBTQ+ community and other minority groups—many of the clips crossing the personal boundaries I’d set myself. A fresh account with a scrolling habit leaning towards right-wing, male media has been completely flooded with this type of dangerously inflammatory content. I can’t help but worry for anyone who has fallen into a hole like this in earnest. It’s a dark, scary, and worrisome place to be.
Something I’ve neglected to mention is how much of this content is curated and published with one specific target in mind— lonely and insecure men. This is particularly evident when we consider creators such as Tate or Hamza, who are hyper-critical of femininity in men too. It’s easy to see how a number of men can gravitate towards this form of content, especially given the expectations in society, or their own insecurities about themselves. I struggled a lot with my own masculinity and femininity growing up, and may have very well been swayed by these types of creators if I’d been exposed to them at an impressionable age.
Things are always changing, and progress is being made but it’s clear that so many of these people feel alone. And this leads them to seek out community in like-minded individuals—a community that quickly radicalises itself when no other voices are allowed to enter.
The Nazis and racists are one thing, but it’s hard not to feel bad for the men who are being targeted by so much of this hyper-masculine, Tate-esque content. From what I’ve witnessed in those clips’ comments sections, these are people who have been let down in life, who faced difficulties, and harboured resentment and grudges into their youth as well as adulthood.
And this just goes on to highlight the platform’s insidious nature. Individuals are essentially at the mercy of an algorithm that prioritises attention economy, and they’re at the mercy of their own inherent loneliness and resentment.
It also makes me worry about impressionable minds, the children being subjected to this platform. It’s hard to take a step back and make assessments for yourself when it feels like the whole world is projecting the same thing you’re thinking. The world that your FYP is curating for you offers very little space for critical thoughts and freedom to challenge the supposed ideals. There are glimmers of hope in the comment sections, but they’re often hidden among the trash.
A quick search shows that, though TikTok has support in place for guardians, little does it acknowledge the problem it poses to the growing generations. The video-sharing platform allows parents to set up restrictions and boundaries but stuff manages to slip through all the time. If I’d ever feel brave enough to repeat this experiment, I think I’d try it with an age-restricted account, to really dive into how problematic content filters through all the same.
In just two days, I’d managed to completely change the face of my FYP by simply guiding the algorithm towards a certain direction. In the process, I’d also subjected myself to some really disgusting content, with TikTok showing no signs of slowing down on the pump unless I’d decided to steer away from it myself. The algorithm picks up on something you favour, and drip feeds it to you—regardless of how negative or hateful the content is. I think I’ve shown just how easy it is to be subjected to this sort of stuff. If you’re above the age of 16, your feed is practically unfiltered and your account unprotected.
Anyone can make it down the rabbit hole I found myself in. This experiment was a strange, dark, and scary journey into a side of TikTok I honestly don’t want to revisit. Now, it’s time to nuke my dummy account and never step foot into this world again.