Investigator’s Guide to TikTok

What is TikTok?

Launched in 2018, TikTok created a short-form, video-sharing social networking app which quickly became one of the most popular social media sites in the world. TikTok’s large user base and expansive video content makes it valuable to investigators seeking information on their subjects.

How does TikTok work?

The TikTok app allows users to create short videos which can be edited with a filter and sped up or slowed down. Users often add their own sound on top of background music they select. Originally limited to fifteen seconds in length, TikTok now allows videos up to three minutes in length.

TikTok has popular users with large followings called influencers. Video content from any user can go viral when it becomes very popular and is viewed by many people on the app.

Tik Tok has made it very simple to create, view, and share videos which have led to a substantial increase in content. The “For You” page is a feed of videos recommended based on the users’ interactions on the app. Despite it being a worldwide app, TikTok has a strong focus on localized content.

TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the app. 90 percent of all TikTok users access the app on a daily basis. A recent study demonstrated that 55% of users upload their own videos to the app.

TikTok Terminology

Like other social media platforms, TikTok has its own terminology. Below is a list of some of the most common terminology associated with the platform.

  • Profile – this is what you create about yourself. This is how a user is presented to other users. Profiles can be made unique through customization.
  • Creators – TikTok users are known as creators. They produce unique short stories which are special moments, experiences, or impressions of the day. These are shared with the TikTok community.
  • Fans – When a person becomes excited about the content from another user they can become a ‘fan’ and follow their profile to see their activity in their own feed.
  • Hearts – A heart can be clicked on the right-hand side of the screen. Clicking a heart will save the video to a collection within the user’s profile so they can be viewed later.
  • Comments – Users can leave comments on other people’s videos. Creators can filter comments or disable them altogether.
  • Private Messaging – allows users to have private exchanges. Users can choose who is able to chat with them.
  • Duet – allows users to take another person’s video and add to it in a partnership. This is a very popular part of the TikTok experience.
  • For You Page – This acts as a homepage where users can browse popular videos.
  • Cringe – videos where someone acts awkwardly or in an embarrassing fashion while attempting to perform sincerely.
  • Challenges – Users agree to make videos attempting to do the same thing, called a challenge. These are often community challenges helping users feel like part of the community.

Who uses TikTok?

By the start of 2021, TikTok had about one billion active monthly users worldwide and had been downloaded in the U.S. at least 200 million times. TikTok users spend more than 850 minutes per month on the app.

While 62% of TikTok users in the U.S. are between the ages of 10 and 29 years old, the app has grown in popularity among older Americans recently. In less than 18 months, the number of U.S. adult TikTok users grew 5.5 times.

Distribution of TikTok users in the United States as of March 2021, by age group

What is shared on TikTok?

When asked in the 2020 GlobalWebIndex survey how they mainly use TikTok, most respondents answered, “to find funny/entertaining content.” Posting/sharing content ranks as the second most common behavior and keeping up with news placed as the third most popular. For comparison, posting content was the top use for Instagram and Snapchat. So, it may be fair to infer that entertainment value is TikTok’s key selling point, especially in terms of consumption.

How does one search TikTok?

From an open-source intelligence perspective, TikTok is a treasure trove of valuable data, including photos, videos, audio, social networks, and more.

The app allows users to set their accounts as ”private.” When first downloading the app, the user’s account is public by default. Private content remains visible to TikTok but is blocked from TikTok users who the account holder has not authorized to view their content. Users can choose whether any other user, or only their “friends,” may interact with them through the app via comments, messages, or videos. Users can also set specific videos to either “public”, “friends only”, or “private” whether or not the account is private.

There are 4 ways to find someone on Tik Tok:

  1. By searching their Tik Tok username
  2. By scanning their Tik Tok QR code. Unlike most social apps, Tik Tok allows users to connect with each other using unique QR codes known as TikCodes. All a user has to do is let someone else scan their TikCode and get connected with other Tik Tok users. The unique TikCode can even be saved as an image on mobile devices for convenience.
  3. By looking them up in your contact list.
  4. By adding them among your Facebook Friends. If a person frequently uses Facebook, they can be found on Tik Tok via the app’s Find Facebook Friends feature.

For this TikTok section, we as analysts are unable to search by adding them as a friend or on a contact list obviously because that is interacting with the user. This is for sure one way to find someone you are friends with on a personal level but not with what we do. Also, TikTok now allows users to search for a subject’s name and not just their username.

Is TikTok useful for investigations?

Yes! TikTok continues to grow in popularity and be seen as an increasingly valuable platform for investigators. With more than 1 billion daily video views there is the potential to uncover key information about nearly every aspect of a research subject’s life. Video evidence can be very powerful when compared to the written word, which makes TikTok extremely valuable to investigators. Effective searches on TikTok often require the attention of an expert.

Social media can also be a valuable marketing tool and recruiting tool for businesses of all sizes. The potential reach of social media is unlimited, and the platforms are often free. However, improper use of social media can lead to extensive adverse legal exposure. Companies should have policies and procedures in place that prevent the use of information from a social media profile to discriminate against potential candidates based on gender, age, race, or other protected class status.

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