London: Refugee families in Syrian camps are begging for donations on TikTok while the company takes up to 70 per cent of the proceeds, a BBC investigation has found.
Children are livestreaming on the social media app for hours, pleading for digital gifts with a cash value.
The BBC saw streams earning up to $1,000 (£900) an hour, but found refugees received only a tiny fraction of that.
TikTok said it would take prompt action against “exploitative begging”, the BBC report said.
The company said this type of content was not allowed on its platform, and it said its commission from digital gifts was significantly less than 70 per cent. But it declined to confirm the exact amount.
Earlier this year, TikTok users saw their feeds fill with livestreams of refugee families in Syrian camps, drawing support from some viewers and concerns about scams from others.
In the camps in north-west Syria, the BBC found that the trend was being facilitated by so-called “TikTok middlemen”, who provided families with the phones and equipment to go live.
The middlemen said they worked with agencies affiliated to TikTok in China and the Middle East, who gave the families access to TikTok accounts. These agencies are part of TikTok’s global strategy to recruit livestreamers and encourage users to spend more time on the app, the BBC said.
The gifts they’re asking for are virtual, but they cost the viewers real money and can be withdrawn from the app as cash. Livestream viewers send the gifts – ranging from digital roses, costing a few cents, to virtual lions costing around $500 – to reward or tip creators for content.
For five months, the BBC followed 30 TikTok accounts broadcasting live from Syrian refugee camps and built a computer program to scrape information from them, showing that viewers were often donating digital gifts worth up to $1,000 an hour to each account.
Families in the camps said they were receiving only a tiny fraction of these sums, however, the BBC report said.
TikTok influencer and ex-professional rugby player Keith Mason donated $330 during one family’s livestream and encouraged his nearly one million followers to do the same.
When told by the BBC that most of these funds were taken by the social media company, Mason said it was “ridiculous” and “unfair” to families in Syria.
“You’ve got to have some transparency. To me, that’s very greedy. It’s greed,” he said.
TikTok’s rules say you must have 1,000 followers before you can go live, you must not directly solicit for gifts and must “prevent the harm, endangerment or exploitation” of minors on the platform.
After the BBC contacted TikTok directly for comment, the company banned all of the accounts.
It said in a statement: “We are deeply concerned by the information and allegations brought to us by the BBC, and have taken prompt and rigorous action.
“This type of content is not allowed on our platform, and we are further strengthening our global policies around exploitative begging.”
TikTok, the world’s fastest-growing social media app, has made more than $6.2 billion in gross revenue from in-app spending since its launch in 2017, according to analytics company Sensor Tower.