TikTok creators discuss unionization on private Discord server

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  • TikTok creators are discussing forming a union to try to create more protection for their jobs.
  • Their reasons include topics such as content moderation, bans, and payment.
  • Legal experts say that organizing social media creators is not impossible, but is very difficult.

A group of 72 TikTokers are actively discussing unionization in a private Discord chat, where members have raised concerns about issues such as moderation standards, compensation and transparency.

“These are our careers, our livelihoods, we are professional creators,” said Forrest Valkai, who runs @renegadescienceteacher, a science commentary and teaching channel with 1.4 million subscribers. “How hard would you work for a company that doesn’t pay you? And where you can get fired and dumped for no reason?”

Valkai said it was the tipping point of more than three years of pent-up frustration from app users.

The group’s top priorities, or potential agenda items, call for TikTok to provide more transparency about how it moderates hate speech and misinformation, and penalizes accounts; extending the same guidelines and access to the Creator Fund to users in all countries where TikTok operates; and a compensation structure on par with YouTube.

While the concept of a social media syndicate is groundbreaking, legal experts told Insider that the collective would have to overcome major hurdles because creators aren’t full-time employees of the platforms they use.

Frequent bans and poor monetization products are key topics

In a friends-only TikTok video in August, Valkai pitched the idea of ​​a union and a space to start organizing. Initially, about two dozen creators eagerly joined the Discord. Their whisper network then quickly tripled that number, with more TikTokers arriving every day.

“It’s now attracting people I don’t know, which is fantastic,” Valkai said.

The core group meets regularly to discuss issues and feasible next steps.

“The ball is rolling, and things are going to have to change,” said JeGaysus, creator and active member of the group. He asked to be identified by his nickname online because he was harassed online for satirizing homophobia in certain Christian beliefs.

One of the main areas where creators are looking for additional protections is in prohibitions.

UK-based TikToker Scott Archer, whose @scottywartooth cosplay account has 7.6 million subscribers, said he had been temporarily banned 10 times in his last few years on the app. Archer told Insider he also believes many (if not all) of the bans were automatically enforced due to the mass reports of his pro-LGBT videos. Each ban can prevent him from posting and making money from branded deals, for weeks at a time.

“For about a month I didn’t post any new content,” he said. “I sent several emails to the company and received no response.”

Another member of the group, Elizabeth Houston, also faced mass reports on her @bookersquared account. She does comedy and commentary on socio-political issues. She was frequently reported and had her account temporarily locked for “nudity” and “minor security breaches”. Houston said her videos do not violate these policies.

Then, in August, her account was temporarily suspended over a video she posted jokingly calling white nationalists “communion crackers.” The offence? “Attacks and insults based on protected attributes,” its notification read.

When Houston was able to raise her concerns directly with a TikTok representative, she was told in an email that her video violated its “hate behavior policy.”

“Does this mean that TikTok is taking the position that white supremacists should be protected and that anything calling out white supremacy is hateful behavior?” she then responded to the rep. She didn’t get an answer.

Other issues raised in the group included sentiment about inadequate monetization products — like the TikTok Creator Fund and “Branded Missions” — as well as moderation and misinformation on the platform.

Discord chat screenshot


Discord


‘It will be a challenge’ for TikTokers to form a union, legal expert says

But while TikTokers have many issues they want the company to resolve, legal experts told Insider that unionization will be a difficult road.

“It will be a challenge to form a legally protected union that TikTok has an obligation to bargain with,” said Alykhan Sunderji, a corporate lawyer who specializes in tech companies and startups. “That’s why Uber [drivers] had such a hard time organizing. [Creators] are not employees and unions are based on a 1950s work environment.”

He said that as freelancers, creators don’t have the same protections as traditional unions. National labor relations law, for example, could not compel a company like TikTok to negotiate a union of creators.

He said the Screen Actors Guild could serve as a model, but it would be difficult. SAG managed to form because major Hollywood actors joined in the effort and production studios agreed to comply in order to get these stars in their movies. In this case, TikTok stars like Charli D’Amelio could play a role, but it’s unclear what leverage they have on the platform.

“From a technical standpoint, the easiest way to form a guild is to create a non-profit organization whose purpose is to advocate for the benefit of its members and other creators,” Sunderji said. “That nonprofit could then collect the membership fee and use that fee to support their advocacy and support efforts.”

Sunderji said even without a union, TikTokers coming together as a collective or association could affect change.

“I definitely believe these creators have more power in numbers,” he said. “It can be so difficult for any creator on any platform to break through the box and reach a living human who has the power to make decisions.”

In 2019, a group of YouTubers formed FairTube, an unofficial YouTube “union” to demand similar demands, like more transparency around its salary and penalties. YouTube said in a statement to Vox at the time that while it appreciated feedback from its creators, YouTubers were not contract employees.

Yet over the years, YouTube has improved its monetization program and transparency. Several TikTokers in Discord cited YouTube as an example of the kinds of changes that could be made.

“We look to our community of creators for valuable comments and keep listening as we work to evolve our offerings to better meet their needs,” a TikTok representative said in a statement regarding a possible creator union. “TikTok is committed to constantly exploring ways for all types of creators be rewarded for their creativity, and equip them with the best tools to speak out authentically, find their community, develop their careers and unlock opportunities on and off the Platform.”

“TikTok is a great place to check out, but a terrible place to be a professional creator,” Valkai said.

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