The TikTok video starts like most other travel snaps on the platform do, with selfie shots showing the user* and his companions sitting on a plane and walking through the airport.
But unlike the highly curated images of hotels and tourist attractions typical of this genre on TikTok, the video quickly takes an uncharacteristic turn, showing the user sleeping in camps, at one point traveling by horseback and ultimately scaling what he calls “la famosa frontera de la muerte” or “the famous border of death” between the US and Mexico.
“We are ready to climb the wall and run like deer,” he narrates in Spanish over dark images that appear to show him and his companions climbing the border wall. “Run, buddy run, or immigration will catch you,” he later says.
The video, which appears to document one young man’s journey from Ecuador to America, has been saved 10,000 times, has more than 170,000 likes and nearly 2,500 comments – the vast majority of which are from people asking him for more information. “How much did you spend and when did you do it?,” one asks.
“Viajes a USA” or “Travel to the US.” That’s all you have to search to find a not-so-hidden corner of TikTok largely populated by videos and posts about migration, specifically from Latin America to the US.
Some of the posts, like the one from the user from Ecuador, appear to be from people documenting their own migrant journeys. But many purport to offer services and advice for people seeking to immigrate from countries including Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador and Honduras.
It’s hard to tell which of these posts are shared by real “coyotes” or human smugglers, and which are scams. In either case, there are risks of deep harm, and experts worry that these videos are spreading on the platform largely unchecked.
TikTok says it “strictly prohibits this content”, though the company did not specify whether that includes posts detailing people’s migration in addition to videos offering to help people cross the US-Mexico border.
“TikTok would immediately remove it from our platform and ban the account,” said TikTok spokesperson AB Obi-Okoye. “We use a combination of people and technology to protect our community and partner with intelligence firms in this area to further bolster our defenses.”
But typing in “viajes” into the TikTok search bar alone will surface suggestions like “viajes seguros a USA” or “viajes a USA garantizado,” which mean “travel safely to the US” or “travel to the US guaranteed.”
The posts offering services are usually simple. They often include hazy footage of a journey or a US cityscape, typically overlaid with a message that seeks to assure users the service is not a scam. Some posts go as far as to show videos and pictures of people who have supposedly successfully crossed with the help of those behind the account.
Usually, the videos don’t include many details and instead direct users to reach out to the account over private message or WhatsApp.
Many of the accounts don’t explicitly advertise their services as illegal, but strongly imply they help people without visas or documents across the border. Others are less subtle: one account posted a video with a picture of the American and Ecuadorian flag, the text over it reading “viajes seguros y sin estafas” or “travel safely and no scam.” Playing in the background is the song “El Illegal” by Ecuadorian singer, Bayron Caicedo.
Quantifying the proliferation of these type of posts on TikTok is difficult because the platform does not provide external tools that allow researchers to audit or analyze its data, unlike companies like Twitter and Meta.
The Guardian shared eight examples of posts advertising services to ferry people across the border and Obi-Okoye said the company took them down. Still, dozens of similar videos pop up when searching for these terms, including some that were posted in the last week.
The videos the Guardian reviewed show that TikTok has started to play a more critical role in the spread of posts targeting migrants than what researchers initially observed.
Studies on human smugglers’ use of social media by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), the research arm of watchdog group the Campaign for Accountability, concluded that TikTok initially was primarily utilized as a video creation platform, while Facebook was the platform of choice for these organizations to recruit clients. Facebook groups and posts from people representing themselves as coyotes would include videos created on and then downloaded from TikTok, but the video app was less frequently used by migrants to engage directly with the services.
“Human smugglers that appeared to be connected to cartels were reposting TikTok videos to Facebook groups for migrants essentially laying out their journey to prove that they were in fact taking people across this route,” said Katie Paul, the director of TTP. “It’s free advertisement for their services, essentially.”
Facebook’s popularity among coyotes was due in large part to its ubiquity in many parts of Latin America, where the company provides free access to various Meta apps as part of its controversial Free Basics program.
But TikTok, which has more than 1 billion monthly active users globally, has exploded in Latin America in the last four years. Recent estimates from market research firm eMarketer indicate the platform surpassed 100 million users in Latin America, making it the third largest social network in the region after Instagram and Facebook.
New posts about Latin American migration are uploaded everyday, and unlike on Facebook, where they are usually found in groups rather than pushed into people’s feeds, the TikTok posts are found out in the open on the platform.
One of the top-liked posts on the topic has more than 70,000 likes, over 5,000 comments and has been saved nearly 5,000 times. The average video on the subject has at least 100 likes and a dozen comments.
Organic engagement on these posts is high and indicates the platform is no longer simply serving as a video creation platform for these accounts. Based on a survey of more than 50 TikToks, the Guardian found that most commenters asked for more information.
In most cases, the creator notified the commenter that they had responded in their direct messages or asked them to message them privately on WhatsApp or TikTok. In at least five cases that the Guardian observed, the creator responded with some information, including travel routes. In one case the account holder detailed the entire route and the price: “From Guatemala to Tapachula by bus. From there by plane to the Juarez border, walk 15 minutes to the TX pass and then to Dallas. $13,500 dollars.”
Only a dozen or so commenters publicly questioned the authenticity of the posts. When they did, accounts either ignored the comment or at times defended themselves. In response to a video that said the creators help people travel securely to the US without walking in the desert, one commenter said: “That’s what they all say and when you come there, things are no longer the way they say to you.” The creator responded, “With us, it’s different. We do not carry large quantities of people and we do not pass them from hand to hand as others do.”
TikTok is a fairly natural fit for posts targeting migrants, whether they’re misinformation, scams or authentic offers to ferry people across the border, said Abbie Richards, a TikTok disinformation and extremism researcher. Making, sharing and finding videos on TikTok is easy by design.
“It’s quite simple,” she said. “TikTok is a really good tool for marketing in an organic content sense where you can create content that will find the targeted demographic itself. The algorithm does the work for you in a lot of ways.”
TikTok’s terms of services bans content that promotes criminal activity like human exploitation, which includes “human smuggling.” In testimony to the US Senate committee on homeland security, TikTok’s chief operating officer, Vanessa Pappas, said the company relies on a combination of automation and human moderators to review posts for content violations.
The human reviewers focus “on making decisions that are more nuanced relative to our guidelines”, Pappas said. She also indicated that the company works with fact-checking partners that support 33 languages. The company does not break out how many human reviewers it has for each language and declined to disclose how many Spanish-speaking moderators it has. TikTok also has several regional safety advisory councils who advise on content policies, including one in Latin America, said Obi-Okoye.
But a new report from Time magazine indicates that to keep pace with its growth in Latin America, TikTok has contracted with hundreds of content moderators through a third-party firm in Colombia. Some of those moderators who spoke to Time said they were overworked and underpaid: they said they worked six days a week, were paid as little as $254 a month and yet were expected to meet lofty performance goals. They also said they were exposed to emotionally traumatic content and were offered little mental health support as they were tasked with taking down disturbing posts that ranged from murder to cannibalism.
Regulating posts related to migration on a platform like TikTok is a “tricky balance”, according to Petra Molnar, associate director at York University’s Refugee Law Lab.
Sweeping content moderation policies can quickly turn into censorship of information that is geared toward and, in some cases is essential for, marginalized people, Molnar said. “International law has recognized that people who are fleeing from a desperate situation might need to use human smuggling, cartels or avail themselves of alternate methods of escape.”
But, just by looking at them, it’s hard to discern which TikTok accounts and posts are scams. When it comes to migration, scams can fall under a number of categories, according to Nilda Garcia, a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M International University who studies the way criminal networks and Mexican drug cartels use social media. Some accounts will disappear entirely after receiving the agreed upon fees. Others will take migrants somewhere and leave them there without helping them cross the borders. Still others leave migrants with a criminal organization, Garcia said.
“These scammers can lure more people because they have more reach through these platforms,” she said. “It can be dangerous because the migrants don’t know if these people are working with criminal organizations or what the situation is with the criminals or organizations at the border. For example, the [border] state of Tamaulipas is so violent now and [migrants] don’t realize they have to come through these places in order to cross to the US.”
In Facebook groups, researchers have noticed some people will post warnings identifying certain users as scammers, including by leaving screenshots of conversations showing the users disappeared after they were paid, Garcia said. “So there’s people in these groups that are actually trying to protect people.”
On TikTok, some users appear to be taking on considerable risk to share accounts of their own journeys with details about the difficulties they came across at each border. One user said she traveled with “coyotes” who took her phone so she couldn’t record anything and claimed they treated all those who traveled with them badly. Commenters verified her claims and said crossing the Mexican border was the worst part of the journey for them.
It’s information like this that can be helpful for people looking to migrate to have, said Molnar, the York University associate director. “This highlights how we need to have these deeper conversations about the flow of information and the way that these platforms really are at the heart of so much information-sharing and knowledge production for all of us, let alone for these kind of contextually specific groups,” she said.
The experts agree that moderating these posts in a way that does not lead to censorship would require TikTok to deploy more human reviewers with both cultural and linguistic expertise. “They need specialists in each country,” Garcia argues. “I don’t think one strategy fits all in all situations. Each area is very different and very specific.”
But tackling issues of migration on social platforms will be difficult so long as the societal discussion off-platform remains murky, they argue. Molnar said: “Our world is heating up, so many people are living in precarious situations, so they’re not going to stop coming unless we have a global conversation about how we create a more just world and make sure that our migration processes are dignified and we’re not really having those conversations,” Molnar said.
* The Guardian has reached out to the user, but is not identifying him, nor the users behind similar accounts described in the story, to protect their safety.
Kari Paul contributed reporting