TikTok finally U-turned on the sexually violent 365 Days trend. But by dragging its feet, it put young people at risk

The platform thrives off teenagers as young as 13 creating viral videos and challenges, yet it does little to protect them when such content becomes harmful

Ellie Fry
Thursday 03 September 2020 11:33
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Anna-Maria Sieklucka and Michele Morrone in Netflix' 365 Days
Anna-Maria Sieklucka and Michele Morrone in Netflix' 365 Days

Despite being mired in controversy since its release in June, the Netflix film 365 Days has been a huge success for the streaming service, maintaining a spot on its 10 most-watched list in countries across the globe long after its debut.

Described as an “erotic drama” by Netflix, the plot sees Laura Biel (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) kidnapped and held captive by mafia boss Massimo (Michele Morrone) who then gives her a year to fall in love with him before he will free her from his control.

Dressed up as a romantic tale, the film is a typical Stockholm Syndrome cliche as Laura falls for the violent mobster after being kidnapped, sexually assaulted and coerced during her captivity. Domestic abuse charities and feminist organisations have accused the plot of glorifying rape culture, trafficking and sexual assault, while Duffy, a Welsh singer who shared her own ordeal of being drugged, kidnapped, raped and held captive in a statement earlier this year, has also condemned the film, calling for Netflix to remove it from the platform. Her sentiments are shared by the 87,000 people (at the time of writing) who have signed a petition calling for the same outcome.

If all of that wasn’t troubling enough, the film has also inspired a disturbing TikTok trend where young users share satirical meme videos about violent sex. Young women are filming videos of their own cuts, bruises and strangulation marks, while citing the film’s influence in the captions. Some share footage of their own injuries, with the caption “so I decided to watch 365 days with my 'guy friend'", while others post videos of their friends' bruises with similar captions. Others joke about wanting to be kidnapped by Massimo, while male users have also been putting their partners into fake chokeholds in other posts, inspired by one of the film’s infamous scenes. The hashtag #365days has amassed over two billion views on the app to date, while the #365dayschallenge has over 20 million views.

In a recent investigation for The Independent into the growing popularity of the trend, TikTok refused to comment on the videos, but it was understood that they did not violate its community guidelines, despite the company prohibiting content that “depicts, commits, or incites non-consensual sexual acts”, as well as content “that commits, promotes, or glorifies sexual solicitation or sexual objectification”.

Now, two months after the trend began to gain traction, and far too many videos glamorising sexual violence later, the app has confirmed that some of the videos that reference the film do, in fact, violate its regulations, stating it has removed such content from the platform. This U-turn is welcome, but after millions of users saw, shared, commented on and replicated said content, it’s a decision that comes far too late from a platform with influence over millions of young people.

Watching non-consensual sexual violence unfold in 365 Days and seeing it directly influence young people in the form of injuries shared in viral TikTok videos is not only uncomfortable but deeply concerning. None of these videos question Massimo’s intent in the film, the complete lack of consent, or Laura’s safety, and instead celebrate the violence by replicating it in real time. This is what justifying non-consensual violence under the guise of romance is teaching young people.

As a platform that welcomes users from the age of 13, TikTok thrives off teenagers creating viral videos and challenges, yet it does little to protect them when such content becomes potentially harmful. The video-sharing app’s track record for safeguarding children is dubious, to say the least. Last year, it was under investigation in the UK for its handling of the personal data of its young users, and whether it prioritises the safety of children on its social network. A 2019 BBC investigation also found that the app was failing to suspend the accounts of online predators sending sexual messages to teenagers and children.

While TikTok offers safeguarding controls which allow parents to restrict mature content, the app has not revealed how it screens videos, so it is unclear what this content constitutes, and whether this process is always accurate. If it’s taken the platform two months to ban content that glorifies sexual violence after it racked up billions of views, then how trusted can this vetting process be?

As violent sex continues to permeate through mainstream culture via films like 365 Days, psychologists and campaigners are warning that schools are failing to offer young people sufficient education on the potential dangers of BDSM-style sex, despite killings as a result of "sex games gone wrong" rising by 90 per cent in the last decade, with two-thirds involving strangulation. This, combined with poor safeguarding from tech companies like TikTok and Netflix, puts Generation Z at risk of serious harm.

One could argue that these videos are made for comedic purposes rather than to portray genuine assault, but ultimately, the film they are inspired by depicts non-consensual violence. Relying on the justification that these videos are satirical mocks the serious nature of sexual assault and throws young people’s understanding of consent, gender equality and sexual relationships into complete disarray. Tech companies need to be held to account for the role they play in promoting such content, just like any other traditional media platform would be.

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