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Charities, TikTok and the question of consent

8 February 2023 at 2:48 pm
Richenda Vermeulen
Even on the most popular or groundbreaking social media platforms, the rules around consent are just as vital as ever.

Richenda Vermeulen | 8 February 2023 at 2:48 pm


Charities, TikTok and the question of consent
8 February 2023 at 2:48 pm
Even on the most popular or groundbreaking social media platforms, the rules around consent are just as vital as ever.
As the fastest-growing social media platform, and an increasingly indispensable tool for engaging Gen Y donors, NFPs ignore TikTok at their peril.

But there is a flip side to TikTok, as with every social media channel. Success here can have unintended consequences if you aren’t intentional about the content you create, and how you make it.

Platforms like TikTok amplify the pressure to create a constant stream of content, delivering the unexpected again and again – which increases the risk that pressing ethical concerns are overlooked. For example:

  • Did the subject of your video give consent?

  • Did they have the opportunity (or ability) to consent before being filmed?

  • Whose story is at the centre?

  • Who might be inadvertently exploited in your content?

Yet these are all vital questions to ask. Consider the following real-world examples:

  • The mum who documents (and monetises) her son’s experience with nonverbal autism

  • The content creator who films ‘random acts of kindness’ without the subject’s knowledge – for example, the Melbourne woman filmed being given flowers she didn’t want

  • The carer posting a dementia patient during their most vulnerable (and private) moments

  • Drake posting a picture he took of an Aussie teacher without her consent that went viral.

Again, these aren’t hypothetical scenarios. The #dementia hashtag has over 2 billion views on TikTok. Some of the most popular content is shot by carers or family members who may not have consent from the person being filmed.

From individuals sharing glimpses into their personal lives to influencers building a brand for themselves, the boundaries around consent are eroding. The stakes are no less high for NFPs, who risk harming the very people they mean to serve if they aren’t careful about how they create and share content.

TikTok isn’t going away anytime soon. It needs to be part of your digital marketing strategy. But how can you use TikTok effectively and ethically?

1. Double down on consent.

Consent is still a legal requirement in some countries, and it’s an ethical must-have everywhere. Informed consent is the gold standard, meaning:

  • The subject is able to give or withhold consent (this excludes children and those dealing with the effects of dementia, for example

  • They’ve given permission to be filmed them

  • They know how their image will be used

The NZ woman who had her groceries paid for had no idea her image would be seen by tens of millions around the world. No one asked whether it was something she wanted.

Informed consent also means the subject has the right to withdraw their permission if circumstances change. And you should always, always be clear that any offer of aid is not conditioned on agreeing to be filmed.

But what about cases where you can’t get informed consent, such as filming a large group? You can still watch for individual cues to determine whether people are comfortable being filmed. Watch their body language – nonverbal clues like putting their hands up or blocking their face. These are clear indicators they don’t consent.

2. Update your media guidelines.

Every NFP should have written guidelines on how photos and videos are taken, how they’re used, and what kind of consent is required. With multiple people involved in the process – often including people outside your organisation – consistent guidelines are a must.

If you already have guidelines in place, great! But a lot has changed the last few years. It’s important to review your protocols to ensure they’re fit for purpose. Your guidelines should apply to staff as well as third-party creators and brand ambassadors.

If you don’t have guidelines in place, now is the time to get some drafted. Here are some helpful resources and examples:

  • Dochas Code of Conduct: Dochas is an Ireland-based network whose code of conduct has been ratified by more than 100 humanitarian aid organisations.

  • Putting the People in the Pictures First: These ethical guidelines were developed by Bond, a network of more than 400 NGOs spanning the globe.

  • MSF Content Production Guidelines: One of the world’s leading medical charities, they’re also a leader in establishing protocols to protect the rights of those featured in their content.

3. Be intentional about the content you make.

Short-form video tends to be very ‘in the moment’, but that doesn’t mean you have to throw planning out the window. Think about what kind of content is most compelling to your supporters and most honouring to the people you serve.

Keep in mind there’s almost always more than one way to show social impact and grow your engagement. For example:

  • You can partner with the people you serve to create content that represents their story the way they want it to be told.

  • You could produce content educating your audience on issues you’re working to address, such as elder care or climate change.

  • Or you could offer practical advice on problems your audience is dealing with in their own lives.

The mental health platform Better Help uses their TikTok to feature therapists addressing everything from anxious thoughts to childhood trauma. Many of their TikToks are under 30 seconds, but each offers real support for a real issue their audience may be dealing with. Movember uses their channel to give practical information on men’s health issues and to amplify the voices of men in their community.

TikTok has changed the rules of content creation in many ways – but the rules around consent are just as vital as ever.

Richenda Vermeulen  |  @RichendaG

Richenda Vermeulen is the founder and CEO of ntegrity, a modern fundraising agency that works with hundreds of Australian and global not for profits and for-purpose organisations.

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