UK ASA ad rulings highlight challenges of TikTok’s automated content moderation

A new batch of rulings from the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) gives a glimpse into how auto-moderation at the social media site TikTok is meant to work.

The ASA again pulled up two vaping companies for advertising products on TikTok when it’s illegal to make promotional posts for non-medically licensed nicotine vaping products in the UK.

The two brands in question this time around were TheGreateVape and Daniels Vapes. Both companies had attempted to create TikTok ads for vaping products. TheGreateVape ad “featured a video of a military-style badge and silhouetted figures marching while music played” and included text promoting the wide variety of options, fast delivery and competitive prices.

Daniels Vapes showed “someone asleep. A thought bubble above their head depicted their dream. The scene inside the bubble panned around a shop and showed shelves of brightly coloured e-cigarette products, while music played”.

Daniels said it believed this to just be copying on a current TikTok trend and that someone had accidentally marked it as a paid-for promotion.

The ASA challenged both of these posts as promoting unlicensed nicotine products online. It also – possibly for the first time – challenged whether TikTok itself had breached the rules for video sharing platforms (VSPs), regulated by statute, by including an ad for e-cigarettes.


Vapes resemble highlighters, lipsticks and toys

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    Previous queries had seemingly only challenged the content of the posts and the brands responsible for it without directly challenging TikTok. Possibly as a result, TikTok provided a much fuller response to the ASA’s enquiries.

    The social media site said it had an automated moderation system but that because vaping devices could resemble a variety of more mundane objects such as pens, highlighters, lipstick tubes and even toys, this made automatic moderation challenging.

    And because both ads had a small circulation – generating fewer than 1,000 views before being flagged and removed – they had not triggered additional rounds of moderation. TikTok added that it was continuing to review and enhance its moderation systems as part of its internal quality assurance process. It said it was “committed to engaging with external bodies to identify regulatory challenges and develop partnerships to educate TikTok users about the risks of such products”.

    The ASA acknowledged that TikTok had taken swift action to remove the ads once notified, but because they were for prohibited products, it found that the social media site had breached VSP guidelines – specifically, rule 31.3.b of the corresponding appendix.

    For the time being, it appears the ASA will take no further action against TikTok. The advertising watchdog said it simply reminded the site of its responsibility under the VSP appendix to ensure ads for e-cigarettes did not appear on the platform.

     Freddie Dawson ECigIntelligence staff

    Photo: Mitchell Luo

    Freddie Dawson

    Senior news editor
    Freddie studied at King’s College, London and City University and worked for publications including The Times, The Malay Mail, PathfinderBuzz and Solar Summary before joining the ECigIntelligence team. He has extensive experience in covering fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG), manufacturing and technological innovation.

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