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Amidst 15-second dances, quick cooking recipes and funny videos, content that praises police stops and searches, military personnel and firearms has found fertile ground for engagement on TikTok, a social network widely used by children and teenagers that does everything to keep young people glued to their phones as much as possible.
The Núcleo analysis with metadata from 61,400 TikTok videos posted since 2016 showed that clips about gun handling, shooting, and police actions, often encouraging violence by State agents, accumulate far more views than political content, for example — although they are not totally detached from politics.
Our search focused on a set of 17 hashtags often used in videos about military personnel, police officers, and gun enthusiasts, and compared them with 24 other hashtags often used in videos about common memes (like Father's Day and funny games/jokes), sports (basically soccer and the 2020 Olympic Games) and politics (against or in favor of President Jair Bolsonaro).
Based on our own categorization of these hashtags, we classify them into five major areas:
Although political videos accounted for the highest number of videos found in the search, 45% of the total, militaristic clips (only 16% of the videos found in the search) generally recorded almost twice as many views per video (mean and median).
The higher user engagement with militaristic and police-themed videos becomes quite evident over time, from January 2020 to August 2021.
In the same period, there has been a notorious increase in the visibility of military personnel in the news and in their participation in federal government positions, driven en masse to the executive branch after Jair Bolsonaro's inauguration as president in 2019.
TikTok started to grow considerably in Brazil in 2020, ranking among the top spots in mobile app download stores.
This shows that the trend of police- and military-themed videos has gained visibility on the social network. This is all the more consequential in view of three things:
1. The social network’s use by children and teenagers
In the U.S., 1 in 4 TikTok users are under 20 years old, according to Statista. There is no specific data on Brazil, but it is safe to say that it is also widely used by this age group. Young people may be more susceptible and vulnerable to radicalization via social media.
2. The social network's efforts to grow in Brazil
It is no secret that TikTok (and any social network for that matter) wants to keep its users connected all the time, even offering cash bonuses. This means more screen time and more videos watched. If a user's preference falls on the militaristic topic, they are likely to be "sucked in" by the algorithm.
3. The addictive algorithm, which repeats content
A fine investigation by the Wall Street Journal, using fake accounts to test the social network, showed that the secret of the algorithm is the close and constant monitoring of video viewing time. This algorithm responds so well to user attention that some people joke that it can read minds. The investigation showed that it is possible to fall into a vortex of extremist content that is difficult to escape.
When contacted on Wednesday, Aug. 11, TikTok responded to four specific inquiries from Núcleo by solely pointing to its community guidelines that "clearly present the content and behavior we prohibit and remove from our platform."
"A higher engagement in content with violence, hate speech, and extreme actions signals that radicalization originated in digital platforms is present in society. The search for and engagement with these contents reveals that these people no longer believe in conflict resolution through the search for consensus but instead with extreme actions to the extreme of violent action. It is the credulity in the idea that only violent action will be able to produce solutions to their demands," says researcher Michele Prado, author of the book "Ideological Storm — Bolsonarism: the Alt-Right and Illiberal Populism in Brazil".
"A young person finds in this type of content a gateway to an underworld of hate, prejudice, and violence. And deradicalization and disengagement are not simple to achieve. Therefore, prevention against Radicalization is still the best way forward," she added.
It matters because...
- Military content can get mixed up with national politics of support for the far-right
- Young people are particularly more exposed to bellicose content that can encourage violence, such as trading video games for rifles
- It reinforces the addictive nature of the social network algorithm
GOOD POLICE IS THE POLICE ON TIKTOK
In April, a Núcleo special report addressed police influencers on Instagram. I then decided to try and see what is going on on TikTok, which has grown exponentially in recent years in Brazil.
Over three (long) months of reporting, I trained my algorithm to such an extent that my TikTok is practically unusable as the app recommends so many videos with police, military, and pro-gun content to me — to a degree that cannot be healthy.
Amidst this bellicose content, many videos not only exalt militarism and politics but also encourage violence from authorities. In one clip, Brazilian Army soldiers sing: "For the 157 I have a 7.62," alluding to article 157 of the Penal Code (robbery by use of force or serious threat) and to the very common rifle caliber.
Another clip makes a direct reference to playing target shooting with criminals, while this one shows a stop and search approach in which the policeman shoots into the air, and this one shows the policeman applying a rear naked choke to a man acting in a threatening manner.
I didn't witness anything flagrantly illegal, in some videos the police violence even seems justified. But many videos emulate police-themed and nationalistic TV shows, trivializing violence and calling on young people not only to enlist in the military and the police forces but also to acquire firearms.
SWAP YOUR PLAYSTATION FOR A RIFLE.
MILITARY WAR CRY IN TIKTOK VIDEOS
There are also many incentives for young people to adopt the militaristic lifestyle, swapping the video game "PlayStation for a rifle" to invade the Alemão favela complex in Rio de Janeiro and make the gun "sing (bang bang)."
As in other social networks, there are also videos showing the body of Lázaro Barbosa, a criminal accused of murdering four people, killed in June by the police in Goiás after terrorizing the region of Águas Lindas and shooting police officers and an Air Force officer.
WHERE MILITARISM FITS WITHIN THE WHOLE PICTURE
To get an idea of the popularity of militaristic content in Brazil, we compared the hashtags in total gross number of views. The data below was collected since the beginning of TikTok and was obtained by iterating the hashtags in this link.
HOW WE DID THIS
We searched TikTok for 41 hashtags using an open source tool. These searches returned metadata from 61,367 videos.
We then did a manual classification of each of these hashtags into major groups: sports, memes, police/military, politics, and pro-gun. The code for the analysis, in R, is at this link. The aggregate data is here.
The data on total global views was gathered via TikTok on a desktop through the link: tiktok.com/tag/[ hashtag ]?lang=en-BR.
We inquired TikTok with four main questions, and also sent the searched hashtags for better consideration, as well as a sample of videos.
- What does TikTok do against radicalization of speech online?
- What is TikTok's policy on political polarization?
- Does TikTok have policies regarding content that shows handling and use of firearms?
- Does TikTok have policies on content with police violence?
The company's response, below, in full:
TikTok's Community Guidelines clearly present the content and behavior we prohibit and remove from our platform, including the promotion of disinformation, firearms, violence, hate speech, and other violations that attempt to impede our ability to promote a safe and welcoming space for creativity and entertainment.
For additional details, visit our Community Guidelines: TikTok
The hashtags that were considered are: