Trend - September 17, 2022 | 04:54 pm PT

For Vietnamese TikTokers trying to attract viewers, nothing is beyond the pale

Phuong Nhung’s life turned upside down after a doctored clip purporting to show her bad-mouthing people went viral on TikTok.

The video on "disparaging males riding manual motorbikes" became a hot topic of discussion in May after it flooded social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook and TikTok.

The 22-year-old from the central Hue Town became the center of attention and copped a lot of flak online. In the short clip, she is seen wearing a facemask and answering someone’s interview questions.

"The original audio was edited out and replaced by someone else's voice," she says, pointing out that Internet viewers are unaware the video was altered.

"Images and videos about me quickly went viral on various social media platforms in just one or two hours after that. Hundreds of messages cursing and threatening came into my inbox. I did not dare turn on my phone for several days."

Three months later, the TikToker who shot the video, Hoang Minh, was summoned by the police. He had already created a number of contentious and fake videos, including one on "people in the central region are stingy."

All of them were made using the same technique: removing the original audio and inserting in its place different answers to questions.

He claims his goal was simple: clickbait.

"My objective was to create videos with biased or skewed opinions on certain topics so that people would argue and critique and condemn them online," he confessed on his channel, admitting it had been wrong to do so.

TikToker Hoang Minh apologizes after receiving public backlash for making videos promoting hate speech. Photo by VnExpress/Luu Quy

He was slapped with a VND10 million ($424.59) fine - the maximum for his wrongdoing, which included aggravating factors such as repeated violations and the extent to which false information was widely disseminated.

This was not the first time a Vietnamese TikToker had used tricks to create sordid content just for attracting views.

Another, a 22-year-old man in Hanoi was sanctioned in mid-August for illegally using a police uniform to make controversial videos. A 26-year-old Can Tho woman was given a six-month flight ban for making a video near a moving airplane in Phu Quoc Airport.

In the last few weeks some food establishments have put up signs saying ‘TikTokers banned’ after heated disputes between them and TikTok creators doing food reviews.

The reviewers criticized and gave poor reviews about the quality of food and service, but the eateries claimed it was merely a tactic to get hits, and it harmed their business.

Stunning stats

Social media platforms provide money-making opportunities for content creators.

According to a person in the advertising industry, the number of views, followers and comments is frequently the first criterion when measuring a channel's reach, effect and monetization.

For example, if a TikTok account has over 500,000 followers, each video could earn VND6-10 million in advertising revenues. Monthly earnings could top VND100 million for those with over a million followers across platforms.

Social media platforms are also developing algorithms to assist content creators in increasing their popularity.

On TikTok, for example, when viewers click on the link to a video, a popup appears requesting them to follow the channel before playing the video.

TikTok's algorithm, like YouTube's, encourages users to frequently create clips with new content.

If a video receives a large number of views in a short period of time, the platform might deem it a viral video, promoting it via recommendation algorithms and placing it in the ‘Trending’ section.

According to a famous local TikToker’s handbook on how to make a million-view video, covering "controversial" topics is one of four secrets to boost viewership. The other three are content matching viewers’ needs and perspectives, shocking elements and attractive graphics and beautiful editing.

Furthermore, given the peculiarities of short clips, content creators "need to build up hype right from the start or else they would be disregarded by viewers and have a low retention rate," the handbook states.

Khiem Vu, administrator of a community of content creators on a social network, opines that, besides the monetization component, many content creators also have a desire to be famous.

"Because TikTokers and their audiences are largely young people, there will be instances when this immature demographic puts up controversial content to get views."

He thinks the current scenario on TikTok is akin to Facebook and YouTube when they first came to Vietnam.

Thanh Huyen, 25, a full-time TikToker in Hanoi, says, "The first thing I do daily is check channel analytics for metrics like views, interactions and comments to decide content for my next videos.

"Except for individuals who make videos for personal enjoyment, everyone wants their channel to have good engagement statistics.

"If the number of interactions is subpar, one may have to delete the channel and create another channel or slip down the rabbit hole of creating dubious content to gain views."

The growth in trashy content online is also due to competition between old and new social media platforms to gain and retain users.

TikTok's short videos swiftly became popular around the world over the two years of the Covid pandemic. The phenomenal success persuaded platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube to launch copycat features since last year, allowing people to create short videos.

Experts think this race means content moderation teams have been unable to keep up with the rapidly expanding number of users.

Impacts of trashy content

Nhung says after over four months since the video of her went viral, her life has still not returned to normal since the clip continues to pop up here and there and she is berated all over again in the comments sections.

A person working in the electronic information sector, who does not want to be identified, says:

"Trashy content is stealing our most valuable resource, which is time. Meanwhile the reading culture is dying."

Huyen used to be proud to call herself a TikToker and thought it was a new and fresh career pathway, but she no longer introduces herself using that label.

"I merely identify myself as someone who creates online content to avoid getting unpleasant stares."

She believes users can always select good content to watch.

"However, if viewers continue to be interested in inappropriate videos, such content will will have room to thrive online and affect people trying to make real and useful content."

Khiem Vu believes it is time for viewers and businesses to define how influential a key opinion leader is beyond numbers.

The observer of the digital content industry many years says obtaining 100,000 followers used to be a big thing for a content producer on Facebook and YouTube, but TikTokers now expect to gain hundreds of thousands of followers after a few short clips.

Minister of Public Security To Lam said in a debate in the National Assembly last month, "Some people strive to become famous on social networks, including by performing illegal acts, producing objectionable content, putting out false information, inciting violence, and slandering the government."

Also in August the government issued a decree to guide implementation of the Cybersecurity Law that requires international businesses doing business in Vietnam to keep users’ data and set up an office in Vietnam.

TikTok now has a representative office in the country, according to the Department of Broadcasting and Electronic Information, which has collaborated closely with the platform to quickly deal with inappropriate content and users.

According to Le Quang Tu Do, deputy director of the Department of Radio, Television, and Electronic Information, there is a fine line between "offensive" content and "violating the law."

"For infringing videos, we direct platforms to deal with them immediately, and ask them to take measures to block them and limit their reach.

"As for content that the public thinks is objectionable but not to the extent of being sanctions, the department instructs platforms to tell content creators, particularly celebrities, to self-regulate their behavior."

According to TikTok's Q1 2022 transparency report, Vietnam was among the 30 markets with the most deleted videos, with approximately 2.43 million of them being removed for violating community policies.

They were removed for violating guidelines related to nudity, sexual acts involving minors or inciting violence but also for scary content, harassment, bullying, suicides, and others.

Vietnam is also consistently ranked in the top 10 markets for deleted videos on YouTube, with their numbers ranging from 70,000-80,000 to more than 200,000 every quarter.

Child safety, fake news and violent visuals are common causes for videos being taken down.

Luu Quy