TikTok admits employees bypass algorithm to promote some videos

If you use TikTok, you're likely aware of the company's algorithm-- the fact that it’s a computer program that determines the videos you see when you open the app’s ‘For You’ feed.  

"A lot of people have described [the algorithm] as the genius of the TikTok app," said Emily Baker-White, a senior technology reporter at Forbes.

"And that's mostly the case."

It is mostly selected by the algorithm. But sometimes—as we’re now learning—it’s chosen by a human being.

"There is actually a system in the TikTok backend that enables TikTok and [parent company] ByteDance employees to give specific videos a little push," Baker-White said.

Baker-White spoke to six current and former employees of TikTok and its parent company ByteDance and obtained internal documents that reveal company staff have the ability to secretly hand pick specific videos and "supercharge" their distribution. It’s a process known as "heating."

"The term was as new to me as it was you," says Baker-White.

Social media content creator Forrest Jung—whose TikTok videos have amassed more than 4 million likes—says he’s not shocked. But he, too, had never heard the word "heating" used in this context.

"It's just a human deciding, like, ‘this is relevant,’" Jung said.

A TikTok spokesperson confirmed to FOX 5 News that the company promotes some videos to "diversify the content experience."

"Only a few people, based in the U.S., have the ability to approve content for promotion in the U.S.," the spokesperson said. "And that content makes up approximately .002% of videos in for your feeds."

"There's a lot of error, I think, in that-- there can be people who are pushing out things for their own agenda," Jung said.

"If i work at TikTok and I was in charge of ‘heating’ certain content and my wife was a cooking creator on TikTok, I could push her content out. And I'm not sure if there's checks and balances to regulate that."

"When something's trending, we like to think that somebody—I’m putting this in air quotes-- 'earned it,’" says Kirsten Martin, a professor of technology ethics at Notre Dame’s Technology Ethics Center.  

"Instead it's based on just an employee pushing a button and saying, ‘I would like this person's content to be promoted.’"

"Part of it is-- what's the criteria that they're using? But the other part is how are they communicating it to the users so that we don't feel like we're being duped?"

There are no laws the company is breaking, but ethically speaking, she says the company should make it clear if a video is promoted by way of so-called "heating."

"Part of the issue with TikTok is that we can't really see why we're seeing something. And so this just makes it -- it's like your worst nightmare of understanding… why they're doing things."

Forrest Jung agrees.

"I think social media platforms need to be slightly more transparent in how they are pushing out content."

But even if they don’t, he says, he has no plans to leave the platform.

"This is just a part of the game now."