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How TikTok responds to controversy: With more educational videos

As it tries to burnish its reputation, TikTok is testing a new education section.

The TikTok app

ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, has previously reacted to negative publicity or political pressure by rolling out new, corporate social responsibility-friendly features.

Photo: Kon Karampelas/Unsplash

TikTok is trialling a new section of its app in North America that highlights educational videos, Protocol can reveal — an approach it has previously used in Asia in the wake of negative reception.

The education-focused vertical, which acts similarly to the app's main For You Page, appeared as an option on some users' phones in Canada in the middle of last week.

There appear to be at least two versions of what is provisionally called the "Learn" tab on TikTok: one is a third tab appearing at the top of the user's screen alongside the "Following" and "For You" tabs. The other, which Protocol has seen video evidence of, is a small lightbulb icon that appears on users' home screens and links to a separate page of endless scrolling videos.

The majority of the videos are tagged with the #learnontiktok or #tutorial hashtags, though they include videos on a number of topics including makeup tutorials, cooking recipes and tips for applying to jobs.

A TikTok spokesperson told Protocol: "We are constantly experimenting with new ways to bring value to the app experience."

A screenshot of the new education feature, showing the lightbulb icon in the top-left corner.Screenshot: Chris Stokel-Walker

It follows a similar push in India, where sources with knowledge of the plans of TikTok's parent company, ByteDance, tell Protocol an educational app is in development.

ByteDance has previously reacted to negative publicity or political pressure by rolling out new, corporate social responsibility-friendly features. In India, TikTok announced its #EduTok program soon after it was criticized by politicians for hosting inappropriate content. The educational vertical also echoes the introduction of a similar section on Douyin, the longer-running Chinese version of the app. A "positive energy" section, which promoted patriotic Chinese content to users, was introduced shortly after another ByteDance app, Neihan Duanzi — a sort of Reddit meets Imgur — was forced to close in 2018 by the country's central ruling authorities for hosting inappropriate material.

The same "positive energy" phrasing was also used in Indonesia, where TikTok launched an educational content campaign after it was banned temporarily in the country for broadcasting "negative content" to people under the age of 18.

Protocol has previously reported on how TikTok is using a playbook developed in Asia to crack the U.S. market.

Testing of an educational vertical comes at an interesting time in North America, coinciding with U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley sending a letter to the Federal Trade Commission claiming that "video-sharing apps like TikTok empower Chinese leadership to pry into the private affairs of Americans by hoovering up enormous amounts of information on individuals' daily lives."

But the app has been on a significant educational content drive of late in the West, announcing a $50 million Creative Learning Fund in the U.S. at the end of May, through which TikTok will partner with 800 creators and institutions to bring learning material to the app. And ByteDance is heavily invested in education more widely: it currently has contracts with over 5,000 English teachers in North America who teach on its educational apps.

"As it grows more successful internationally, we observe ByteDance experiencing something of an identity crisis," says D. Bondy Valdovinos, a researcher at Queensland University of Technology, who has studied TikTok and its Chinese counterpart, Douyin.

"To assuage concerns over its Chinese origins, the company has recently deployed a variety of responses such as moving moderation teams outside of China and appointing a new American CEO. TikTokforGood and EduTok have been excellent responses to controversy that encourages users and creators to create content that repairs ByteDance's image."

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