‘There is a balancing act between creative freedom and our Community Guidelines’ — TikTok’s regional GM

‘There is a balancing act between creative freedom and our Community Guidelines’ — TikTok’s regional GM
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Updated 19 October 2022

‘There is a balancing act between creative freedom and our Community Guidelines’ — TikTok’s regional GM

‘There is a balancing act between creative freedom and our Community Guidelines’ — TikTok’s regional GM
  • Tarek Abdalla, regional general manager at TikTok Middle East, Turkey, Africa, Pakistan and South Asia, on creativity, content & community

DUBAI: In July, TikTok appointed Tarek Abdalla as regional general manager for the Middle East, Turkey, Africa, Pakistan and South Asia.

Abdalla joined TikTok after more than 5 years at Google where his most recent role was regional marketing for emerging markets EMEA.

“Tech is not just a career for me, but a passion I’ve had since I was a teenager,” he said.

The passion was born thanks to “an amazing computer science teacher,” who encouraged Abdalla and helped him work on digitizing and automating the school’s quarterly report card system, saving hundreds of hours for teachers.

“Ever since then, I've been a huge believer in how technology can create value and help us focus on our best abilities as humans,” he said.

Having worked at YouTube, the original home of video, now it is TikTok, the most popular short-form video platform. “My experience really paved the way for my new role,” Abdalla said.

“Digital platforms have completely changed the way we engage with the world and each other as well as how we live our lives, from all perspectives and video plays a transformational role in peoples’ online experiences,” he added.

“Video helps make education easier, entertainment more enjoyable and music more dynamic,” and for many people, TikTok has become the platform they “turn to for experiencing entertainment throughout their day,” according to Abdalla. 

Tarek Abdalla

While YouTube remains popular for video content — including short-form videos with the launch of YouTube Shorts — Abdalla said: “TikTok is unique as it lives at the intersection of entertainment, community and commerce, and we celebrate storytellers above all.

“A single piece of content can quickly go viral and create demand globally, and we've seen this time again with the viral hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt.”

The hashtag is so popular that sites like BuzzFeed and New York Post publish articles with lists of the most useful things TikTok made people buy, and stores even have “As Seen On TikTok” sections.

In fact, videos with the hashtag had amassed a global total of 13 billion views on the platform as of June 2022.

The platform has a powerful hold over Generation Z audiences, with users often finding inspiration on the platform — whether for recipes or shopping. A large part of this power comes from creators who seem authentic, trustworthy and relatable.

A 2021 study by influencer marketing company Markerly found that TikTok had a significantly higher engagement rate than Instagram’s Reels for individual users.

It’s perhaps why 92 percent of TikTok users said they take action after watching a TikTok video, with one in four globally saying they are inspired to research a product or even make a purchase, according to a TikTok Marketing Science global study conducted by Kantar.

“I’m amazed by how the TikTok community has truly transformed the consumer journey from a linear path to purchase to an ecosystem of engagement that sparks action in the moment,” said Abdalla.

His goal is “to drive strategic growth initiatives and solidify TikTok’s presence in these markets (METAP and South Asia), as well as support our business teams with their goals of connecting partners with TikTok’s growing community.”

Although TikTok is a global company, Abdalla said, “we are heavily localized in our approach,” which means that the regional team can “bring our creators the content and the information that resonates locally.”

Within the region, he added, “a new wave of creators has been inspired by the short-form video platform’s exceptional popularity” in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is the birthplace of many TikTok trends with users being 1.3 times more likely to know about products and trends before their peers.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is “particularly unique” in that it has “become one of the fastest growing gaming hubs in the world and TikTok has provided gamers with a space to watch and engage with broader gaming content,” he added.

Despite TikTok’s growing popularity, the platform still faces issues with content moderation. A few months ago, videos with the title “NyQuil Chicken Challenge” started circulating on TikTok and other social media platforms.

The videos suggest cooking chicken in the over-the-counter nighttime cold and flu medicine. The trend resulted in the US Food and Drug Administration issuing a warning.

“The challenge sounds silly and unappetizing — and it is. But it could also be very unsafe,” the FDA said in a statement.

It added: “Boiling a medication can make it much more concentrated and change its properties in other ways. Even if you don’t eat the chicken, inhaling the medication’s vapors while cooking could cause high levels of the drugs to enter your body. It could also hurt your lungs.”

Abdullah said: “Content that promotes dangerous behavior has no place on TikTok.”

He added that this particular challenge “did not trend” on the platform, “but we remove any content if found and strongly discourage anyone from engaging in behavior that may be harmful to themselves or others.”

Now, when one searches for “NyQuil Chicken” on TikTok, a resources page pops up advising users about online challenges.

Often, social media platforms struggle to strike a balance between free speech and regulation, and TikTok is no exception. “We aim to build responsibly and equitably so our community has the creative freedom to make authentic and meaningful content,” said Abdalla.

“However, as the safety and well-being of our community is our top priority, there is a balancing act between creative freedom and our Community Guidelines.”

As part of this act, TikTok removes any content that violates these guidelines by using a mix of technology and human moderation, he added. In the second quarter of 2022 alone, TikTok removed approximately 25 million violating videos in the region.

The company also started to introduce content levels earlier this year. “We understand that people may want to avoid certain categories of content based on their personal preferences,” said Abdalla.

“Recognizing this, we worked to build a new system to organize content based on thematic maturity,” he added.

For example, if TikTok detects that a video contains mature or complex themes such as fictional scenes that may be frightening or intense for younger audiences, a maturity score is allocated to the video to prevent those under 18 from viewing it.

Abdalla added: “Our ultimate goal is to provide a safe and enjoyable space for our community to create and consume content they want to see and engage with, and we're excited about the opportunity to contribute to solving long-running industry-wide challenges.”