TikTok’s social media rite of passage has arrived: The platform hosts a growing number of pro-eating disorder content, which managers are meeting with a well-meaning but lackluster response.
The Guardian reports that after the publication’s recent investigation into pro-ED and pro-anorexia (pro-ana) content on the popular video app, TikTok has launched an investigation, banned a group of flagged accounts, and banned “harmful phrases across all search verticals.”
A TikTok spokesperson offered the following statement about the changes: “As soon as this issue was brought to our attention, we took action banning the accounts and removing the content that violated those guidelines, as well as banning particular search terms. As content changes, we continue to work with expert partners, update our technology and review our processes to ensure we can respond to emerging and new harmful activities.”
But when I attempted to test TikTok’s filter for myself, and the results were galling. While typing “proana” yielded no results (nor a prompt for helpful resources to aid those who are struggling with EDs), typing “proan” brought up several alternate spellings ripe for ED content, such as “proanarexi” and “proanotok” and “proanachallenge.”
In 2012, Instagram and Tumblr made terms like “thinspo” and “bulimia” unsearchable, eventually adding a prompt for those looking up pro-ED content to seek help. However, some research suggests banning phrases outright might have simply exacerbated the problem. Teens are clever, and by using deliberate misspellings of popular ED search terms (ex: “thinspooo”), they’ve long been able to get ED content past the censors.
From Wired, 2016:
Only seventeen terms were banned by Instagram, but according to [a team of] Georgia Tech researchers, there were 250 variations — many of which promoted even more triggering material. “These variants were extensively used to continue to share information encouraging adoption and maintenance of pro eating disorder lifestyles, often to also share more triggering, vulnerable and self-harm related content,” the researchers wrote.
The team argued that moderation may not be the best way to mitigate the effects of problematic content, and describe moderation as enacting “negative consequences”. They concluded that content moderation had been “mostly ineffective at decelerating the dissemination and proliferation of pro-ED behaviour on the platform”.
So instead of a handful of pro-ED hashtags, there are hundreds. Though Instagram has made efforts to beef up its commitment to filtering pro-ED content since—today, even searching “pr0ana” with a zero instead of an “o” yields a prompt to seek help—TikTok has a lot of catching up to do.
Ysabel Gerrard, a professor of digital media and society at the University of Sheffield, told the Guardian that following an early wave of press coverage about this issue, TikTok has begun to ban ads for fasting apps and weight loss supplements. Still, she has lingering concerns:
She added that restricting the “results for hashtag searches is not enough, and hashtag searches might not even be the way users find new content anyway.”
At present, TikTok doesn’t send resources to people in the UK searching for pro-eating disorder terms. “It simply says ‘no results found’ or directs you to the platform’s community guidelines – their rulebook for user behaviour,” Gerrard said.
She acknowledged that removing content was tricky. “In particular, TikTok would need to be careful when limiting search results for usernames because some accounts might be pro-recovery, and there’s plenty of evidence to tell us how helpful social media can be for people with eating disorders.”
Recovery videos can inadvertently become a casualty of social media platforms culling pro-ED content, and to be clear, there is plenty of recovery content on TikTok. “Let’s Eat Together” videos have become popular in recovery communities, and some users have even reclaimed the “eating disorder check” audio to share their recovery journey. Still, the ED content continues apace.
Back in February Buzzfeed News reported about TikTok users having pro-ED content pushed to them via TikTok’s For You Page, the primary TikTok feed which displays content ostensibly based on one’s interests). In July, NBC News interviewed a number of teen girls and young women who have encountered pro-ED content on the app, with one interviewee calling it a redux of “pro-ana Tumblr circa 2013.”
This sentiment is echoed in tweets by Tumblr veterans who have lamented that fitspo and dieting content on TikTok is deeply reminiscent of Tumblr content of yore.
Aside from the usual calorie counting and before and afters, TikTok is riddled with videos injecting the same dark, meme-centric humor that is popular in Twitter ED-communities, where self-deprecating jokes about your ED becomes a kind of social currency that sincere food logging simply doesn’t. The dearth of ED TikTok users joking about their pre and post covid-19 lockdown bodies is indicative of this.
Some TikTok users have taken it upon themselves to document their reporting of pro-ED accounts.
“This is the second time I’ve reported [this account]!” one woman tweeted in October, sharing a screen capture of herself reporting the account to TikTok yet again. “It CLEARLY states pro-Ana and supports eating disorders. Which is against your guidelines but is still active?? @tiktok_us THIS ISNT OKAY!!!”
TikTok is still a relatively young app, and they’ll learn vital lessons as they continue to grow. But it’s 2020. Online ED content isn’t new, and it hasn’t changed much, despite what TikTok’s statement suggested. Since the primordial days of LiveJournal blogs and forums, ED content is bound to set up shop in any and all online spaces, especially those that are frequented by women and girls. TikTok dropping the ball like this cannot be attributed to growing pains alone.