Opinion: Influencer on TikTok: Before it was scary, it was exciting

Opinion: Influencer on TikTok: Before it was scary, it was exciting

Editor’s note: (Jake Novak is a writer, singer, actor and filmmaker in Los Angeles. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. You can read more opinion articles on CNN.)

(CNN) Last summer, I became somewhat of an infamous figure on TikTok when a video I posted and appeared on “Saturday Night Live” went viral — but not in the way I had hoped. At first there was mass mockery and parody, but the conversation quickly turned angry and downright venomous, leading to a lengthy campaign of harassment urging me to kill myself.

TikTok has been at the center of the national conversation recently, with lawmakers proposing a nationwide ban on the popular video-sharing app over concerns that the China-based company may be harvesting the personal data of American users.

But as an online creator, I think the real, undeniable problem with social media is that bullying and hate can spread enormously and at an alarming rate on platforms like TikTok — and that’s a serious threat to the mental health of creators and everyday users.

Social media companies are tasked with strengthening their content moderation practices to limit this behavior, and to ensure this, the federal government should mandate more effective procedures to curb the spread of hate online.

In the wake of the “SNL” post, my notifications were flooded with cruel comments and snarky videos, from calls to action by users to bully me off the platform to suggestions that I wasn’t bullied enough as a child. And when they had their fill of TikTok, these trolls found me on Instagram and YouTube—and even my inactive Twitter—bombarding me with nasty comments, tweets, and videos. Overall, my content quickly gained millions of views and likes.

I immediately stopped posting on social media, and when they noticed my absence, the commentary turned to joking musings, wondering if the negative attention had caused me to kill myself, and the hashtag #RIPJakeNovak. A few users, perhaps emboldened by the hashtag, emailed me directly to end my life if I hadn’t already.

This was my reality for months – all because of a video I posted that people thought wasn’t funny.

Social media creators are all too aware that the platforms that provide them with a creative outlet and, in many cases, a livelihood, can turn hostile at any moment. Horror stories of users being mercilessly abused and doxxed – where identifying information such as physical addresses are posted online, usually maliciously – are all too common. And recently there has been an increase in stalking, where individuals falsely accuse someone of a fictitious crime in order to send armed police to their home, which can turn fatal.

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My version came about when users discovered that I was an entertainer at Disneyland and started going there to film and post the videos on TikTok. The captions often referred to the fact that I was alive, usually with amazement or false relief. But on the other side of the lens, I became more and more afraid of what these people were saying about me.

Several of my co-workers received messages on Instagram that appeared to threaten my life, which meant that every single “wild” video I posted was not only a potential source of humiliation, but a beacon that shone through the entire Internet—including those who who desired me. too bad – know my location in real time. Yet there was no excuse: I was in a public position that allowed and even encouraged anyone who wanted to film me. I was alone, vulnerable and afraid.

But I still had to go to work. My anxiety was through the roof every show and I wondered if the person yelling my name was just a harmless jerk or if he was planning to follow me in the parking lot. This fear also remained outside my workplace: in restaurants, grocery stores, and car washes. I slept on my friends couch because I was afraid someone found my address. I couldn’t be sure how long it would take.

Is the Chinese government using TikTok to violate Americans’ privacy for political gain? Who knows. Are Americans using social media to bully their fellow Americans? You can be sure.

TikTok’s community guidelines promise zero tolerance for users who are “shamed, harassed or harassed”, acknowledging that such content “may cause severe psychological distress”. The platform claims to remove videos for harassment — many before they’re even reported — and that’s a good start. In recent months, they have actually removed some harassing comments and videos about me. But that wasn’t before they got to me — and potentially influenced the creation of other harassing comments and videos.

I did not reach out to any social media platform to report the bullying; even if I did, it’s so widespread I wouldn’t know where to start. Instead, to prevent the disturbing hashtag from becoming a reality, I deleted all social apps from my phone. I have yet to reinstall them.

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I understand that as an entertainer – and especially as an internet creator – I’m exposed to people sharing their opinions about me and my work. But what started as a discussion about me turned into attacks directed at me. The former is the discourse, which is very much included in the range of acceptable behavior towards public figures; the latter is bullying, which is very not.

But not everyone who experiences cyberbullying is an internet personality who has opened up to public criticism. Many targets are everyday users who are unwittingly thrust into an unsavory spotlight, and the effects can be devastating.

A 2018 review of 26 independent studies published between 1996 and 2017 (published by TikTok in September 2016) found that adults and youth are more than 2.5 times more likely to attempt suicide when faced with online bullying, and the CDC according to that teenage girls’ sadness and suicidal thoughts have “increased dramatically” in the past decade. The same 2021 study notes that 16% of high school students surveyed by the CDC said they had experienced “cyberbullying” via social media or text messages in the past year.

We saw a tragic convergence of this just last month, when 14-year-old Adriana Kuch committed suicide two days after a clip of her being bullied at her New Jersey high school was shared on TikTok. Before she died, she told her father that she didn’t want to be “that girl who gets beaten up and laughed at on video.”

Social media companies are not without tools to deal with harassment on their platforms, but they don’t seem to be using them as well as they should.

Some sites are said to employ a form of “shadow banning” where posts are disabled for violating the community, but this practice is notoriously opaque and algorithms can misinterpret permitted content as prohibited. Companies like Meta, the parent of Facebook and Instagram, employ scores of human moderators to review content around the clock, but the moderators say they’ve made mistakes in judgment because of confusing and ever-changing policies. Late last year, Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, which provided advice on suicide prevention and mental health, was disbanded. It doesn’t take much to understand why stories like mine – and many more heartbreaking – permeate the online zeitgeist.

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Maybe unexpectedly, I don’t want to be banned by TikTok – in fact, I hope it won’t be. I loved being a creator: the constant making of videos, the challenge of pushing myself in new directions on a dime, the thrill of watching strangers from all over the world interact with a song I wrote minutes after recording it in my bedroom. I loved seeing the work created by fellow creators and felt inspired by it. I miss TikTok. Before it was scary, it was exciting.

That was the promise of social media: a place to go to talk, share, laugh, think and come together. These are digital spaces where everyone is supposed to be comfortable, but I and many others continue to run away from them for fear of our physical safety. These platforms have had nearly two decades to deliver on their promises and have failed time and time again. Maybe it’s time to stop hoping it will.

Senator Marco Rubio recently stated that “the federal government has yet to take any meaningful action to protect American users from the threat of TikTok.” But if they pass legislation banning the app due to China’s privacy concerns, that claim will still be true. Even if TikTok disappears from American life entirely, online hate and harassment will continue to exist on other platforms as long as the government imposes stronger, broader, and more effective content moderation on social media that specifically protects us from harassment.

To the possible chagrin of those whose post cheered me up, my story fortunately did not end in suicide. But it’s all too clear that the next victim’s tale could have a far more deadly conclusion—in fact, it already has.

Suicide and crisis hotline: Call or text 988. Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in trouble, prevention and crisis resources for you and your loved ones, and best practices for professionals across the United States. En Español: Linea de Prevencion del Suidio y Crisis: 1-888-628-9454.

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