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ByteDance Scraped Instagram for TikTok Predecessor: Is This a Smoking Gun?

The Chinese tech firm ByteDance is facing questions about its business practices once again. Former employees of the company disclosed that it reportedly “scraped” Instagram and other social media platforms and created fake accounts using scraped content on its Flipagram platform, a predecessor to TikTok. The practice, while not necessarily illegal, is frowned upon enough that platforms like Instagram and Snapchat ban unauthorised scraping.

tiktok app icon on phone
Credit: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash

Former ByteDance staff told Buzzfeed that, in 2017, the company began scraping user data after it acquired Flipagram. The app, since rebranded as Vigo Video and discontinued by the company, is similar to TikTok in that it shares short videos, but these videos are in the form of photo slideshows set to music. According to the former employees, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, the company scraped thousands of accounts on Instagram, Snapchat and (ironically) ByteDance’s platform, obtaining photos, user names and other data without user consent. An engineering team in China was responsible for the scraping, these employees said, and internal company documents seen by Buzzfeed show that the team was instructed to scrape as many as 10,000 videos a day in specific countries.

According to the report, the purpose of this scraping operation was to create hundreds of fake accounts on Flipagram, a “growth hack” to expand its user base and thus attract more investors. This is not a new practice: Engadget says that this was done by social media platforms in their early days. While scraping web content has been useful for journalists and archivists aiming to preserve content from older websites—the Wayback Machine wouldn’t exist without some form of scraping—the practice is viewed as dubious by various social media platforms. Instagram and Snapchat prohibit unauthorised scraping, and, in 2021, LinkedIn obtained a minor legal victory when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a re-hearing of a lawsuit concerning third-party scraping of its user profiles.

The more serious allegation in the BuzzFeed story concerns something that goes to the heart of ByteDance’s most popular app, though. Two of the four former employees revealed that the personalisation algorithm for “For You”, the content feed that users see when opening the TikTok app, was developed using the same scripted content for Flipagram. If this is true, then it is arguable that a key part of TikTok’s ability to generate virality was developed using “stolen” user data from other platforms.

Buzzfeed reached out to ByteDance for comment on these allegations and did not receive a specific reply.

internet archive wayback machine screenshot
Where scraping makes sense: the Internet Archive Wayback Machine

The Engadget story points out an irony here. The Instagram platform from which user content was scraped created the rival feature Reels to compete with TikTok but instead discovered that users were uploading old TikTok content for their Reels. Instagram has since said that it would no longer promote TikTok videos.

The Chinese-owned tech company has been the target of very intense scrutiny for its popularity and, in a country where anti-Beijing sentiment is strong on all sides of the political spectrum, its ownership. In June 2021, CNBC reported that another group of former ByteDance employees disclosed how the parent company in China had access to TikTok’s American user data. The report quoted experts who said that having this much control of the platform would allow the Chinese government to more easily disseminate its views. A recent Washington Post story suggests, however, that legitimate, well-sourced allegations about ByteDance’s business practices could be caught up in a potentially well-organised smear campaign waged by the company’s chief rival, a certain Silicon Valley company called Meta.

  • Four former employees of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance told Buzzfeed that the company allegedly scraped thousands of user profiles on social media platforms to create fake ones for the defunct platform Flipagram.

  • One allegation is that the company also used the scraped data to develop a key part of TikTok, which is its personalisation algorithm for the “For You” feed.

  • ByteDance declined to directly comment on the allegations, which are the latest to hound the global social media juggernaut.

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