Utah files new lawsuit against TikTok, alleging it exploits teens on ‘virtual strip clubs’

Jun 3, 2024, 1:14 PM | Updated: 2:34 pm

SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah filed its second lawsuit against TikTok Monday, alleging this time that the social media giant allowed minors to be sexually exploited in what the state called “virtual strip clubs,” and proactively profited.

The state was specific with its evidence, targeting a feature within the TikTok app called “TikTok LIVE.” It’s there, the state alleges, that the sexual exploitation takes place, thanks in part to the app’s virtual gifts feature, which onlookers can send to users who stream.

The gifts can be cashed out for real currency by the recipient, and streamers can earn “thousands of dollars each month from fans.” The problem, the suit states, is that TikTok “hides the fact that only half of this money goes to the streamers — pocketing the rest for itself.”

“This feature allows adults to prey on children in many egregious ways, including by transacting with and soliciting sexual acts from minors,” the suit states.

The gifts themselves, it says, are inherently attracting children because of the graphics TikTok uses.

“TikTok makes these animated gifts even more tempting by designing them like cute, colorful emojis reminiscent of cartoons and Disney characters — clearly aimed at children,” it states.

Figure 12 in a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah against TikTok, Inc, showing icons of gifts that can be sent within the app’s LIVE feature, and can be cashed out for real currency. (Utah Attorney General’s Office)

The sexual exploitation in the suit was outlined by a series of investigations, where multiple investigators created accounts posing as children on the app.

In a September 2022 investigation, a detective was shown underage girls providing sexually suggestive content in exchange for money “within minutes of browsing the (LIVE) feed.” Even when the detective created a new test account, the results quickly fell into the same pattern.

In a separate investigation conducted in Utah, a division investigator posed as a 17-year-old boy in Utah and posted on a board asking for “plugs,” in reference to drugs. The test account was quickly approached by drug dealers who offered him “a laundry list of drugs for shipment.”

The suit then pictured a list of drugs for sale on TikTok but did not specify whether the list actually stemmed from that investigation.

Figure 12 in a lawsuit filed by the state of Utah against TikTok, Inc. (Utah Attorney General’s Office)

The suit included data about how much money TikTok earned globally in 2023, including the figure TikTok made from Utahns, but the numbers were redacted from public view. A large portion of the lawsuit is redacted, including more allegations made against the platform and statements TikTok made in the past.

The suit follows a separate lawsuit the state filed in October 2023, that claims TikTok uses tactics to intentionally create an addictive space that’s not just harmful to teens, but targets them. The state then filed similar lawsuits aimed at Facebook and Instagram.

The lawsuits were fueled further by other states joining in and filing suits of their own, eventually leading to a bill that had the potential to ban the platform in the U.S. altogether. TikTok has since filed its own lawsuit to block the bill.

The lawsuit was also filed after the former President Donald Trump joined the platform for the first time just days prior.

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Utah files new lawsuit against TikTok, alleging it exploits teens on ‘virtual strip clubs’