In July 2022, TikTok introduced a tool called Filter Video Keywords to let users block videos with words or hashtags they did not want to see. Cormac Keenan, Head of Trust and Safety at TikTok, described it as an important safety feature to “help viewers customize their viewing preferences and continue to have a safe and entertaining experience.” Keenan promised it would “be available to everyone in the coming weeks.” More than a year later, hundreds of TikTok users said they didn’t have access to the setting or, if they did, that it didn’t work.
After being contacted by Gizmodo, the company said it stepped in to solve the problem.
Last month, I posted a video on my personal TikTok account about using the setting to block content about the company’s retail store, which launched Sept. 12. The video included a tutorial and screen recording that showed exactly where to find Filter Video Keywords. But as the comments rolled in, dozens of people said their apps didn’t have the setting.
“My content preferences don’t have ‘filter video keywords,’” one user wrote, punctuating with a sad little emoji. “I don’t have the setting, can’t figure out why,” said another. Some speculated the company sabotaged the setting because of my video, which is a flattering but greatly inflated view of my level of social media influence. “I just tried to do this & do not have the option to block keywords,” a user said. “Did TikTok get hip to this hack??” A month went by, and I posted two more videos on the subject. Similar comments poured in.
Hundreds of other people said they did have the setting but it did not function as described. Users reported they were seeing videos with hashtags they blocked using Filter Video Keywords, including #tiktokshop, #taylorswift, and others. One user said they had blocked over a hundred hashtags but regularly saw videos that feature them.
There are very few laws governing the social media business in the US, but the one that often trips up tech giants is the prohibition on unfair and deceptive business practices. The Federal Trade Commission has issued opinions stating that breaking promises about privacy and safety settings violates the law. So I contacted TikTok about the comments. According to a cheerful spokesperson, the whole thing was a glitch.
“I spoke to the team, and we identified a recent issue that temporarily impacted a small number of users,” the spokesperson said. “We were able to issue a fix. As always, we encourage everyone to use the latest version of the TikTok app.” The spokesperson said that anyone missing the setting should see it when they update the app. The spokesperson declined to say how many people were affected, or what the source of the problem was.
However, a fix to the setting’s disappearance doesn’t explain the complaints of users who said the Filter Video Keywords tool didn’t work even when they did have access to it.
In TikTok’s description of the setting (and on the page in the app where Filter Video Keywords is found), the company says you’re not allowed to block certain hashtags, including #ad and #sponsored. But the spokesperson confirmed that users are free to block #tiktokshop, though they didn’t offer an explanation for why people would see videos with a previously blocked hashtag.
In 2019, an investigation by yours truly found that millions of people were missing a Facebook privacy setting that turned off facial recognition a year and a half after the company promised to deliver it. In that instance, the Federal Trade Commission got involved, and cited the problem as one of its key complaints in a $5 billion settlement with Facebook, the company now known as Meta. Ultimately, Facebook disabled facial recognition altogether and deleted faceprint data for over a billion people.
In other words, Gizmodo just saved TikTok. All in a day’s work.