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There are many bad corners on the internet, but none as ugly as what you will see when you create a TikTok account. Because the app’s algorithm is so good at identifying what you like, it gets better and better each time you use it. I have a TikTok account that has been around for almost four years. It’s filled with cats, hair tutorials, and 15-year-olds with mental health issues who will become successful stand-up comedians.
A page unsullied for you, whose only knowledge is that you are human, will offer you a disorienting mixture of hot girls’ butts and advice about stealing viral video ideas from other people.
Although the creator of it condones a lot of algorithm-driven, sleazy behavior, I appreciate his honesty about a practice that has plagued the internet for years: plagiarism. This includes both intentional and unintentional plagiarism. It can be used to steal the work of successful people. Although plagiarism is most common on TikTok, it is even more difficult to control the plagiarism that occurs between platforms.
Brendan Koerner is comfortable with people using his work for source material. He’s used to producers asking him questions about his work. He’ll receive a cut of any sale if they choose one of his books. An unfortunate thing happened earlier this year: A podcast was published based solely on a story he had spent nine years covering for The Atlantic. There was no credit given or acknowledgement of the source material. These situations are becoming more common with the podcast boom. He wrote his story in a viral Twitter thread last week.
Over the years, several history podcasts and true crime have been accused of plagiarising written articles without credit. This has happened to Koerner several times. He says that if something is easy to access or free, it might be assumed that it can be used free of charge. Many people have had their hard work repackaged to make a profit. I worry that this will ultimately be a negative for all the people who tell stories and create them.
It’s very difficult to copyright jokes. For obvious reasons, you can’t copyright facts. This means that in some industries, IP law cannot do more than it can, social and professional norms can dictate your reputation.
What about the average YouTuber, podcaster, or influencer? Internet posts are not considered copyrightable intellectual property. They are more of a mix of comedy and journalism, so social media must be monitored for thieves.
Since the beginning of time, meme theft has been a topic of discussion. In 2015, popular Instagram pages like @TheFatJewish or @FuckJerry were faced with a reckoning over joke-stealing. This was largely due to comedians and random people who had made viral tweets that were later retweeted elsewhere. Seven years later, the problem is still there. In fact, it has gotten worse. Meme pages are accounts that curate mainly content from other people. Some even argued that their work is an art form.
Jonathan Bailey was interested in plagiarism during the 2000s when he started a blog about goth literature that featured his poetry and fiction. He was alerted by a reader to a blog that had stolen his work. He did some research and discovered hundreds of other blogs in the online goth community who were republishing his writing. He says he won many contests on AllPoetry.com, even though he never had an account. He’s been focusing on his blog Plagiarism today for the past decade. It tracks current events and offers advice about what to do if your work has been plagiarized.
He believes there are three major eras of internet plagiarising. The first was the 1990s and 2000s when people copied each other’s work to make their own, not necessarily for profit. The second occurred in the mid-2000s when search engine optimization was a common practice. Sites could make money off crappy, AI written work that capitalized upon the strategic placement of specific keywords. Bailey explains that this changed when Google started to crack down on low-quality content. The third era includes the type that thrives on social media. Users compete for attention-grabbing content in hopes of making ad revenue and securing a deal with a brand.
He says that social media puts a lot pressure on what is fundamentally creative. Multiple plagiarists have told me that they felt pressured to post as many articles, podcasts, or videos as possible.
It is easy to say that social media platforms encourage users to copy each other. YouTube works by people creating trends. Those trends are meant for everyone to follow, in data science and digital platform ethics. There is a fine line between following the trend, copying it, and declaring it your own.
It can be difficult and sometimes impossible to determine who copied what, especially when people live in so many digital environments. Many people who plagiarize don’t realize they’re doing it. Day claims that they don’t realize that someone else has discovered the same thing they are talking about.
It is difficult to think of a platform that encourages more plagiarism than TikTok. Their technology encourages people to react to each other’s work without acknowledging the original creator. Last week, a new feature allowing users to credit a video from another user when they post their own. These features are an important part of our ongoing commitment to investing resources and product experiences that foster a culture credit. Kudzi Chikumbu is TikTok’s director for creator community.
TikTok’s brand new crediting feature.
Day is most familiar with instances in which TikTok creators jump on to a popular dance or audio without knowing the originator, spreading it to more people. This was evident more than when TikTok ‘s Renegade took over, in late 2019 or early 2020. However, Jalaiah Harmon (a 14-year old from Atlanta) received no credit or clout for her choreography until months later.
This incident sparked a reckoning online, culminating in a Black creator striking to protest the co-opting and abuse of the community’s dances. Day explained that recommendation algorithms are designed to make sure people with large followings are recommended to others so there isn’t much opportunity for smaller creators to be recognized.
You have never had so much potential to gain from being widely recognized as the true originator of viral moments. What is the best way to coin a term? It can be sold as an NFT . Participated in a reality TV show? . No matter what reason, you can get a lot of followers. Your Venmo handle should be in your bio. You can either sign with an agency that specializes in getting cash from small bursts.
People can become quite protective of their ideas in a climate such as this. A fellow journalist recalls an instance when a TikToker was furious that she had unintentionally linked to one their videos without naming them. It is tempting to pass off other people’s work as your own. There are even incentives to not research whether someone has done it before. It can be painful in a certain way. It’s almost like asking yourself why I spent so much time researching a story or book, only to have someone else pick the best bits and present it in a different format. And then claim all the credit. What’s the point?
Although technology has made it easier to spot plagiarism, it is still difficult to distinguish between different media formats. For example, written work can be turned into a video or a podcast into a book. Plagiarism experts recognize that it is not enough to rely on data systems to detect when something has been stolen. They also need to shift the culture around proper idea attribution. Bailey states that we must answer this question collectively.
Day believes that we need to better understand internet ethics and media literacy. It’s all about doing extra work, such as doing a Google search to find the right information before reproducing something. People don’t put in the extra effort because they assume that what they see is reality.
It is possible that they are not doing it because of a financial incentive to stay ignorant. This is a much more complex problem that cannot be solved by a new crediting system or platform tweak. Plagiarism is, to use a more precise term, a loser behavior. All of us must understand this.