TikTok used to fuel anti-Syrian sentiment in Turkey

    A trending video in Turkey inaccurately mocks Syrians for being lazy and living off handouts from the government.

    “Brother I am Syrian, Esad boom-boom, Turkey is beautiful, we are Muslim brothers, Erdogan gives money, life is so beautiful, I drink shisha, you work all day,” says a male voice mimicking Syrian in broken Turkish. That’s what can be heard on a trending TikTok video in Turkey these days accompanied by Turkish people lip-syncing the words as a dig against Syrians who have taken refuge in the country. Syrians are the largest immigrant group in Turkey, making up 4.35 percent of the country’s population. Syrians have been immigrating to Turkey since the beginning of the civil war in 2011.

    The rising number of Syrians and misinformation regarding Syrians’ living standards in Turkey has increased the reaction of the local people and led to hate-speech and xenophobia against them. Just as these videos indicate, misinformation is fostering anti-Syrian sentiment and hostility within Turkish society. There are many people who believe that Syrians receive payment from the state, do not pay for food and go to university without entrance exams. Although these allegations are groundless, there is hardly any space for correction the spread of this fake news. Social media platforms like Tik Tok accelerate the misinformation.

    The app, which became famous in Turkey in late 2018, allows users to upload 15 to 60 second videos with special effects, filters, music and voice-overs. However, the most popular content in Turkey is often “cringey”, a term that is adopted directly into the Turkish language to define videos that make the viewer feel embarrassed on behalf of someone. TikTok is the most downloaded app in Turkey with 23.2 million downloads in 2019. The user profile ranges from children to old people, rural to urban locations and conservative to secular backgrounds. Despite the age restriction, it is a well-known fact that so-called Gen-Z is actively using the app. They often aim to increase views and likes without analysing the content of “trending videos” or understanding the human cost of the narrative that they might be spreading.

    The videos are not only circulated by Turkish users, but also Syrians in Turkey who criticise the videos by “dueting” with them and adding their messages such as “God willing what happened to us will happen to you – you are low-lives – below my shoes” and another one is captioned “keep mocking with Syrians so Allah can do to you what he did to us.” The comments show us how videos like this can easily lead to conflict within the society and amplify polarisation. It is not the first time that the app faces criticism regarding the lack of content monitoring. TikTok was founded by a Chinese technology company ByteDance as an international version of a China based video-sharing platform Douyin.

    In 2017, ByteDance purchased valued at up to $1 billion, a music-video platform based in Shanghai and California and combined the two apps into one in 2018. In a short time, the app has become the most valuable start-up company in the world. Its critics have multiplied simultaneously with the app’s growth. Although hate-speech is marked as a violation of TikTok’s community guidelines, there are various examples of TikTok being used to promote hate speech.

    During the recent Coronavirus phenomena, TikTok became a platform for hoax videos and anti-Chinese memes. Similarly, the platform consists of many videos where people mock ethnic and religious minorities. While videos containing what can be easily argued as hate speech is easy to find on the app by searching certain keywords, the Chinese app is quite prompt about censoring contents regarding the Hong-Kong protests or mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims. Allegedly there have been other cases of censorship directly by Beijing, the headquarter, based on political and religious expression as well as race, sex and social income.

    The most important question here is who decides what needs to be removed and what can stay? There is a moderation team that spots and removes problematic content, however with more than 20 million users to moderate in Turkey, it is questionable how big this local team is and how efficient they are. These questions were posed to TikTok Turkey, specifically asking the size of the team, how their moderation mechanism works and the lack of Turkish language support regarding the community guidelines. However, these questions remain unanswered at the time of publication as TikTok Turkey did not respond to request for comment.

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