I’m Maria, The Markup’s community and social media manager and occasional reporter. In this role, I often think about how social media giants could cut off our access to our audience from one day to the next.
But what does this reality mean for people whose personal accounts are connected to their livelihood? This week, I joined forces with Rachel Auslander to pursue a reader tip about a TikToker with a disability whose access to the platform was suddenly pulled away.
TikTok thought that Violet Elliot, who advocates for better dwarfism representation through her account, didn’t meet the platform’s age requirements and subsequently banned her. To understand how platforms’ decisions can impact the people on them, we spoke to Elliot directly. Our conversation has been edited and organized for brevity and clarity.
Maria: For readers who haven’t seen your TikTok content, what do you create and what does the platform mean to you?
Violet: I create dwarfism and disability content sharing my experience as a little person, as well as commenting on representation of dwarfism in pop culture and the entertainment industry. I’ve spent a year and a half building up my platform and had 87,000 followers before I was banned.
My main goal was to create a platform for education. I’ve had so many people come to me and say that I’ve changed their perspective on people with dwarfism, or that they used to use harmful language and no longer do so because of my videos. The fact that I was making change through my TikTok platform is really important to me.
Maria: What happened to your account?
Violet: Everything seemed normal last Saturday night. Then I woke up on Sunday morning and was told that my account was banned. When I opened the app, a pop-up notification said “Your account is banned because it looks like you do not meet the age requirement to use TikTok. Your account will be deleted on June 3, 2024. If this is a mistake and you are at least 13 years old, you can appeal before May 27, 2024. You can also download your data before May 27, 2024.”
Once I went to appeal it, I was logged out of my account. I had to take a photo of my ID, as well as a separate photo of me holding the ID along with a code that TikTok gave me. I tried logging back in and it just said your appeal has been submitted and we will contact you with more information.
I felt stressed and then that stress translated into anger over the course of the day. And then, eventually, my anger turned into sadness. And I’m trying not to get too sad. I’m trying to stay angry so that I can use that anger and turn it into action.
Maria: Is this the first time your account has been flagged in this way?
Violet: It’s the first time my account has been banned, but this has happened to a few of my friends with dwarfism. The platform assumed that they didn’t meet the age requirements.
I’m guessing that people may have reported me and just selected that I’m underage. Another friend with dwarfism had this happen: They went viral last year after calling out a creator with a big following for making an ableist joke. The creator’s die-hard supporters got angry and mass reported my friend, who lost their account even though they didn’t do anything wrong.
The thing that frustrates me is that there’s no transparency when you get banned. You can’t go and talk to a human being and try to sort this out. You can appeal it and that’s pretty much all you can do. And if your appeal doesn’t go through, then I guess too bad.
Maria: When did you decide to create a “backup” account and post a video about what happened there? What has the reaction been like?
Then I went out for the day on Sunday and my friends suggested reaching out to the media. That’s when I made a second video, the one that kind of got popular. A lot of people are tagging TikTok and asking the platform to address ableism. A lot of people are happy that they’ve found my account again and have been really helpful in engaging with the video to get it on the For You page and garner attention.
I think it’s a lot of people who see this as an unjust action on TikTok’s part and I’m glad that I still have people trying to find me and wanting to support me.
Maria: What does losing access to your TikTok account mean to you?
Violet: Every day that I don’t get my TikTok account back is an opportunity that’s lost. When I want to attend an event or set up a meeting with a certain individual, I can pitch myself by using my follower count as leverage and potentially offer them my platform to promote their event or product. When I don’t have a platform, I can’t pitch myself.
I’ve been thinking about how often this happens to disabled people. Where they’re just existing on a social media platform and then they’re gone because someone is offended by their existence.
I’m very lucky that I work outside of TikTok, but not every disabled person has the privilege to work a nine-to-five job. If they build a brand on social media, and their social media platform gets taken away, there’s a chance that their livelihood and their income gets affected. I think it’s ridiculous that we can only appeal the decision and just hope for the best.
Maria: In your video, you mention facing ableism on the platform more broadly. Could you speak to that?
Violet: There’s much more positivity on TikTok than negativity. But people say really mean things on the platform. They resort to attacking my appearance or calling me the “m” word, which is an ableist slur that’s used to describe people with dwarfism. I’ve blocked that word on TikTok so those comments get filtered, luckily. Sometimes I get threats as well.
There’s subtle ableism and then there’s straight up ableism. Some of the comments that are obviously ableism get taken down. But a lot of the time TikTok says that there’s nothing wrong with these comments. Often in my experience, my responses speaking out against ableism get taken down but the comments themself don’t.
I want TikTok to take ableism a lot more seriously.
Maria: What is the first thing you’d do if you get your account back, have you thought about that?
Violet: I have. I think I’m going to basically reiterate the things that I said in the video on my backup account, and highlight that TikTok is not taking ableism seriously and that this is really affecting disabled creators.
Even if I don’t get my account back, I think this is an opportunity to make people aware that when a disabled person gets banned, or any marginalized creator gets banned, it really affects their livelihood.
The day after our interview, Violet’s account was reinstated—but something was off. Once Violet regained access to her account and scrolled through her profile, she noticed that video after video had been taken down and marked with the label “Community Guidelines Violation.” All in all, these removals amounted to nearly 500 of the more than 600 videos she’s published. The platform did not specify what about each of these videos violated the community guidelines, nor provide a way for Violet to appeal the decision.
TikTok spokesperson Mahsau Cullinane said that the company is working on restoring Violet’s videos.
Thank you for reading,
Community and Social Media Manager