TikTok, YouTube trends linked to car theft amid increasing ‘performance crime’ videos
The sharp uptick in stolen or damaged cars has been linked to viral videos, posted to TikTok and other social media platforms, teaching people how to start the cars with USB cables and exploit a security vulnerability in some models sold in the US without engine immobilizers, a standard feature on most cars since the 1990s preventing the engine from starting unless the key is present.
But unlike some social media-driven trends that seemingly disappear just as police get a handle on them, the car thefts have continued.
Hyundai has tried to work with TikTok and other platforms to remove the videos, but as new ones surface fresh waves of thefts occur, illustrating the lingering effects of dangerous content that gains traction with teens looking for ways to go viral.
It’s a phenomenon known as performance crime.
Police departments in a dozen cities have said it factors into an increase they’ve seen in juveniles arrested or charged with car thefts.
Still, criminology experts caution that the role teens are playing in the theft increases — which began during the pandemic and aren’t limited to Kia and Hyundai — may be artificially inflated because teenagers inexperienced at crime are more likely to be caught.
Attorneys general from 17 states have called on federal regulators to issue a mandatory recall, arguing the voluntary software fixes issued by the companies aren’t enough. Multiple cities including Baltimore, Milwaukee and New York have filed or announced plans to join legal action against the automakers, which also are facing class-action and civil lawsuits from consumers. One such lawsuit was settled for roughly $200 million last week.
The National Highway and Safety Administration blames the trend for at least 14 crashes and eight fatalities, but lawyers suing the carmakers say the number is likely much higher.
Social media platforms take the blame
Some police departments, victims and the automakers point the finger at social media platforms. Videos posted on YouTube in recent weeks show people breaking into various cars or using a USB cable to hotwire cars. The company removed the videos when notified by The Associated Press.
YouTube removed videos depicting what’s known as the “Kia Challenge” in recent months, spokesperson Elena Hernandez said in a statement, while stressing the company considers context when making those decisions.
“We might allow some videos if they’re meant to be educational, documentary, scientific, or artistic,” Hernandez wrote.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson pushed back on assertions that many of the dangerous challenges mentioned in news reports had reached mass popularity on the platform.
“There is no evidence any of these challenges ever ‘trended’ on TikTok, and there is a clear documented history that many challenges falsely associated with TikTok pre-date the platform entirely,” TikTok spokesperson Ben Rathe said.
Hany Farid, who stepped down in January from TikTok’s US content advisory council because he felt unable to affect change, said TikTok tends to be defensive when criticized for its content moderation practices. He acknowledged the challenge of knowing where some trends originate because content moves quickly between platforms.
“It’s very much a Whack-A-Mole problem,” said Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Because these platforms were not designed to be safe for kids, or for anybody.”
TikTok’s enforcement report from the last three months of 2022 showed 5 percent of the videos the company removed were due to dangerous acts and challenges, with 82 percent removed within 24 hours.
Like many social platforms, TikTok screens content with a combination of artificial intelligence and human moderators who try to catch whatever AI might miss. A spokesperson said it’s easier for technology to spot certain violations, like nudity, than things like teens breaking into cars. The human moderators are a second level of screening when content is questionable.
Users also sometimes subvert the platform’s controls by misspelling or changing words in hashtags. Some see that as a loophole deserving attention. TikTok says it monitors misspellings and touted the content being forced away from mainstream hashtags as a success.
Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, did not reply to a request for comment on how it screens for similar videos.
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