TikTok owner ByteDance scraped content from Instagram and others to push predecessor app

The company repurposed content from other platforms as a growth hack for Flipagram.

Florence Lo / reuters

To fuel the rise of its app Flipagram, TikTok parent company Bytedance scraped profiles, videos, usernames and other content from Instagram and other social media platforms. Buzzfeed reported that the Chinese company scraped “hundreds of thousands” of accounts for content without users’ consent. Flipagram, which ByteDance acquired back in 2017, allowed users to create short slideshow videos set to music — sort of a simplified version of TikTok and other short-form video apps. The app has since been rebranded as Vigo Video.

The scraping strategy was meant to be a “growth hack” for Flipagram, allowing it to expand its user base, according to former ByteDance employees interviewed by Buzzfeed. Flipagram was scraping up to 10,000 videos per day from high-priority countries, according to one former employee. The three platforms that Flipagram allegedly scraped content from are Instagram, Snapchat and (which is owned by ByteDance and was later absorbed by TikTok). One former Bytedance employee disputes that Instagram was involved in the scrape due to the incompatible sizing of their videos at the time.

The employees also allege that the scraped content from major US social media platforms was then used to build Bytedance’s “For You” algorithm. TikTok has yet to comment on whether Flipagram’s stolen data was used to build TikTok’s “For You” algorithm.

Scraping publicly available data isn’t illegal by itself. Many social platforms find "creative" ways to boost their audience in their early days, like harvesting external content, creating fake profiles or mass-emailing potential users. But companies can also ban unauthorized scraping in their terms and conditions for users, which Instagram and Snapchat both do. Violating such contracts can often lead to lawsuits.

There's an irony to Bytedance in its early days allegedly scraping data from Instagram, since Reels was Instagram's attempt to capture TikTok's audience and instead became a receptacle for old TikToks. In order to keep Reels from driving more traffic to its rival app, Instagram recently announced it would no longer promote TikToks.