TikTok parent company Bytedance apparently borrowed content from competitors for a predecessor to the popular short-video app. BuzzFeed News reports this, citing four former employees and internal documents.

Copycats are actually commonplace in the major social networks – at least since Facebook has mercilessly helped itself to the functions of Snapchat, TikTok and Co. with its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp.

But as BuzzFedd News now reports, these practices do not only refer to the functions such as Stories or Reels. The content of the users is apparently also being used diligently.

This is what happened at TikTok parent company Bytedance. BuzzFeed News refers to four former employees and internal documents in its report.

What exactly is Bytedance accused of?

According to the report, the company allegedly siphoned off massive amounts of content from Instagram and Snapchat for its Flipagram platform. This data then appeared on fake accounts on the Bytedance platform.

Among them, however, was not only the pirated content. Usernames, profile pictures and profile descriptions had also been copied from Instagram, Snapchat and other platforms and uploaded to Flipagram. This was done without the knowledge of the actual users.

According to the four former Flipagram employees and internal documents, the scraping began shortly after the takeover by Bytedance.

The scraping was carried out by a team in China. According to the ex-employees, this procedure was one of several “growth hacks”. Like and video view statistics were also manipulated, they said.

One of the ex-employees said the scraping affected hundreds of thousands of accounts, and a document seen by BuzzFeed News described plans to “crawl videos > 10k/day in P0 countries” – according to the ex-employee, this meant the team’s goal was to scrape more than 10,000 videos per day in the highest priority countries.

What could Bytedance have wanted with the content?

According to two of the former Flipagram employees, Bytedance used the stolen content for its “For You” algorithm. This algorithm is used today by TikTok, among others.

The Chinese group Bytedance had wanted to train the algorithm with the scraped content on US content.

The internal documents seen by BuzzFeed News include reasons for using “fake accounts” and scraped content. These, it said, would allow the platform to “test which content is best received on the platform.”

BuzzFeed News further quotes from the internal documents that the scraping is said to have started in 2017. It was also important that the content was “not too Chinese” so that it would be well received by U.S. users.

The content theft did not go undetected

Meanwhile, some users did not miss the fact that their content appeared one-to-one on another platform.

Flipagram had received emails from creators who had discovered their content on the platform, as the four former employees describe.

There were also inquiries from parents who wanted to know from Flipagram why their children’s content could be seen on the platform.

In such cases, the employees were instructed to delete the corresponding accounts. It also happened that the account was handed over to the user.

In such cases, Flipagram has pointed out that the platform cannot prevent a user or fan from uploading third-party content to the platform.

What does Flipagram have to do with TikTok?

Founded in 2013, Flipagram was once considered a serious competitor to Instagram. The platform for photo collages and short videos was transferred to Bytedance subsidiary Toutiao in 2017.

The news aggregator app Toutiao later renamed the app Vigo Video before Bytedance finally took it over into its own portfolio.

Bytedance also acquired the app Musical.ly in the same year. According to the BuzzFeed News report, the teams from the two competing apps worked together “side by side for a while in Flipagram’s Los Angeles open office.”

Is Flipagram now TikTok?

The competition between the two platforms reportedly led to “an uncomfortable and very uncollaborative energy in the workplace.” Then, the year after the acquisition, Bytedance laid off parts of the Flipagram team in LA. Musical.ly eventually became TikTok.

According to Bytedance, the former Flipagram has nothing to do with the current TikTok. Bytedance spokeswoman Jennifer Banks wrote to BuzzFeed News, “Flipagram and Vigo ceased operations years ago and are not related to any current ByteDance products.”

Flipagram founder Farhad Mohit Flipagram probably sees it differently. His LinkedIn profile says Flipagram is “now TikTok.”