Tech Updates

TikTok’s Secret ‘Heating’ Button Can Make Anyone Go Viral

For years, TikTok has described its powerful For You Page as a personalized feed ranked by an algorithm that predicts your interests based on your behavior in the app.

But that’s not the full story, according to six current and former employees of TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, and internal documents and communications reviewed by Forbes. These sources reveal that in addition to letting the algorithm decide what goes viral, staff at TikTok and ByteDance also secretly hand-pick specific videos and supercharge their distribution, using a practice known internally as “heating.”

“The heating feature refers to boosting videos into the For You feed through operation intervention to achieve a certain number of video views,” an internal TikTok document titled MINT Heating Playbook explains. “The total video views of heated videos account for a large portion of the daily total video views, around 1-2%, which can have a significant impact on overall core metrics.”

TikTok has never publicly disclosed that it engages in heating, and while all tech giants engage, to some degree, in efforts to amplify specific posts to their users, they usually clearly label when they do so. Google, Meta, and TikTok itself, for example, have partnered with public health and election groups to distribute accurate information about COVID-19 and help users find their polling place, making clear disclosures about how and why they chose to promote these messages. (Disclaimer: In a former life, I held policy positions at Facebook and Spotify.)

But sources told Forbes that TikTok has often used heat to court influencers and brands, enticing them into partnerships by inflating their videos’ view count. This suggests that heating has potentially benefited some influencers and brands—tthose with whom TikTok has sought business relationships—aat the expense of others with whom it has not.

We think of social media as being very democratizing and giving everyone the same opportunity to reach an audience,” said Evelyn Douek, a professor at Stanford Law School and Senior Research Fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. But that’s not always true, she cautioned. “To some degree, the same old power structures are replicating in social media as well, where the platform can decide winners and losers to some degree, and commercial and other kinds of partnerships take advantage.”

Heating also reveals that, at least sometimes, videos on the For You page aren’t there because TikTok thinks you’ll like them; instead, they’re there because TikTok wants a particular brand or creator to get more views. And without labels, like those used for ads and sponsored content, it’s impossible to tell which is which.

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