How the internet makes people plagiarize each other

The internet is full of awful corners, but no one is as crawling as what you see when you open a new account at TikTok. The program’s highly customized algorithm is enhanced by knowing what you like, the more you use it, so as someone who has had a TikTok account for almost four years, mine is full of cats, hair tutorials and 15-year-olds with worries about mental health who will grow up to be successful comedians.

An Immaculate Conception Page For you, whose only knowledge is that you are a human being, you will be served a far-reaching combination of two things: hot girls’ asses and tips on how to steal other people’s viral video ideas.

Why the buttocks are there is self-explanatory (they get the most views). The latter phenomenon, however, reveals a much darker side of the human condition. What they offer is “tips” or “hacks” on how to go viral on TikTok, which is embarrassing in itself but even worse in practice: titles vary by “How to grow your account to 1k followers in 1 week,”Al “10 Video Ideas Anyone Can Use,“or”How to Easily Produce Video Ideas for TikTok. “ The latter gives the following advice: “Find TikTok from someone else who inspires you and then literally copy it. You don’t need to completely copy it, but you can get close enough.”

While the creator behind it tolerates rather vile, algorithmic-brain behavior, I have to appreciate his honesty about a practice that has plagued the internet since it existed: plagiarism, both the intentional kind that can fall anywhere on the spectrum of “pretty nasty.” “Actively bad,” and the kind of thing you do when you make content in a system of ever-increasing rewards for stealing successful people. .

Brenden Koerner is accustomed to using his work as a source material. This is usually good: About once a week, he will ask questions of producers hoping to interview him for a documentary or adapt one of his books into a film or podcast. If they choose one of his works, he will receive a cut from that sale. Earlier this year, the bad thing happened: Someone released a podcast based exclusively on storytelling he spent nine years reporting for the Atlantic, with zero credit or acknowledgment of the source material. “Situations like this have become too common in the midst of the podcast explosion,” he wrote in a now-virus Twitter thread pasintmonate.

Among the growing thirst for attractive or sensationalist stories, several a real crime and historical podcasts have been accused of plagiarizing written articles without credit in recent years. Koerner had this happen to him several times. “If something is easily accessible or free, there may be a general assumption that it is free to use,” he says. “There are a lot of people who have had their hard work repackaged for profit, and I’m afraid it will ultimately be a pure negative for the whole ecosystem of people who create and tell stories.”

Plagiarism, it should be noted, is completely legal in the United States, as long as it does not go beyond the (often vague) definition of intellectual property theft. Movies, music, or works of fiction have strong legal protections against this (remember the millions of lawsuits between artists for stealing each other’s samples), and Koerner’s Atlantic story is also protected under the law (in works where the originality or art of the author is quite obvious, courts will side with the creator), but often not worth the time and money to take legal action.

However, the definitions of what constitutes an IP are rapidly becoming blurred. You can’t copyright a dance or recipe or yoga posefor example, and it is really hard copyright joke. You also, for obvious reasons, can’t copyright a fact, which means that in industries where IP law can only do so much, social and professional standards dictate your reputation: journalism, comedy, and academia, for example, fields in which plagiarism. are among the most cardinal sins.

So what about the average influencer, YouTuber or podcaster? Internet postings are, for the most part, non-copyrighted intellectual property. Instead, they are more like a hybrid of journalism and comedy, which means that social media usually has to police itself against thieves.

Self-theft has been the subject of debate for as long as they exist; back in 2015, popular Instagram memes like @TheFatJewish and @FuckJerry faced counting for burglary, mostly by comedians but also by random people who made viral requests and later saw them reinstated elsewhere. Fast forward seven years, and the problem didn’t go away – in fact, it got worse. The self-pages, or accounts that handle mostly other people’s content, have won. Some have even successfully argued that this is what they are doing an artistic form in itself.

Jonathan Bailey became interested in the subject of plagiarism in the early 2000s, when he ran a Gothic literary blog dedicated to his poetry and fiction. After a reader pointed him to another blog that stole his work, he did some digging and found hundreds of others in the online goth community republishing his writing as his own. “I actually won a nasty ton of contests at despite never having an account there,” he says. For the past decade, he has focused on his blog Plagiarism Todaywhich tracks current affairs related to the topic and tips on what to do if you have been plagiarized.

He claims that there are three main eras of internet plagiarism. The first was in the 1990s and early 2000s, when people stole each other’s work because they wanted to make it work, but not necessarily for profit. The second was in the mid-2000s, when search engine optimization became a widespread practice and websites were able to make money with crappy, AI-written work that capitalized on the strategic placement of certain keywords. “That stopped when Google really started slowing down low-quality content,” Bailey explains. The third era consists of one that flourishes in social media, where users compete for the most attention-grabbing content with the hope that they could make advertising revenue or earn a brand.

“[Social media] there is a lot of pressure on what is essentially a creative process, ”he says. “I’ve talked to repeat plagiarists who say, ‘I’ve felt pressure to publish so many articles or podcasts or videos.’

It’s easy to argue that social media platforms practically beg their users to plague each other. “That’s the way YouTube works [people] create trends, and those trends are meant to be followed by everyone else, ”explains Faithe Day, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Black Studies Research at UC Santa Barbara who works with data science and digital platform ethics students. “But there’s a fine line between following a trend and copying what someone else is doing and saying it’s your own.”

Determining who copied is a confusing and often unsolvable problem, especially when humans exist in such diverse digital spaces. “A lot of people who plagiarize don’t know they’re plagiarizing. They don’t know that the thing they’re talking about has already been discovered, ”Day says.

It’s hard to name a platform where plagiarism is more pronounced than TikTok, whose technology encourages people to react and build each other’s work, often with little or no recognition from the original creator. It became such a thing that last week TikTok announced a new feature this allows its users to credit an existing video when posting their own. “These features are an important step in our ongoing commitment to investing in resources and product experiences that sustain a culture of credit that is essential to ensuring that TikTok remains home to creative expression,” wrote Kudzi Chikumbu, TikTok’s creative community director. in the ad.

TikTok’s new credit feature.
Tik Tok

Day sees this most often in cases where popular TikTok creators jump on a trendy dance or audio without knowing who the original creator is, thus spreading it to more people for whom the popular creator was the actual origin. Nowhere was this clearer than in late 2019 and early 2020 when the Renegade dance was taken over by TikTokdespite its choreography, a 14-year-old in Atlanta named Jalaiah Harmon, receiving none of the credit or power until months later.

The case resulted in a calculation on the platform, culminating in a Black creator strike to protest the unbridled co-opting of the dances and slang of the community. “Recommendation algorithms are created to ensure that people who have large followers are recommended to other users, so there aren’t many chances for small creators to gain recognition,” Day explains.

There has never been so much to gain, perhaps, from being widely credited as a true creator of a viral moment. Currency term? Sell ​​it as NFT. Did you appear on a reality show? Launch OnlyFans. Get a lot of followers for whatever reason? Put your Venmo handle in your bion. Shill for shady galactic light mark or sign with an agent who specializes in squeezing cash from tiny bursts of attention.

In such a climate, people of course grew quite protective over their ideas, sometimes to the point of being disgusting (a fellow journalist remembers a time when TikToker was angry that she impatiently linked to one of their videos without mentioning them by name.). There are incentives to transfer the work of others as your own – incentives, even to avoid investigating whether someone has done the work before.

“Everyone is looking for a side mess, and an easy way to make money is to add content,” says Chris Stokel-Walker, a UK-based journalist who has experienced several of those muddy are-are-actually-plagiarized moments where you end up. feeling used and exploited but unsure whether it is worth starting problems. “It hurts, somehow. It’s like, well why did I spend months researching a story or a book just for someone to walk around, cherry the best pieces, present it in a different format, and claim all the credit? What’s the matter? ”

As the technology for detecting it has improved, it is much more difficult to get rid of plagiarism when it occurs in different forms of media: a writing work that is turned into a video, a podcast that is turned into a book. Rather than relying on data systems to tell us when something is stolen, then, plagiarism experts acknowledge that the shift in proper idea allocation must occur culturally. “We have to answer that question as a collective society,” Bailey says.

“We need a greater understanding of media literacy and internet ethics,” Day says. “It’s about doing the extra reading work, doing a Google search before you play anything. But people don’t do that extra work because there’s an assumption that what they see is a direct reflection of reality, which of course isn’t always true. “

They also may not do it because they have a financial incentive to remain ignorant. But this is a more complicated problem that cannot be solved by a platform adjustment or a new credit system. It must be widely understood that plagiarism is, for lack of a clearer term, a losing behavior. And that starts with all of us.

This column was first published in The Goods bulletin. Join here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get exclusive newsletters.

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