TikTok creator Harrison Pawluk with Maree and pandemic tracking website COVID Live (Image: TikTok/@lifeofharrison, covidlive.com.au)

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Last week, the tables turned on a TikTok star. A Melbourne woman had been minding her own business in a shopping centre when a young man asked her to hold a bouquet of flowers while he laced up his shoes.

After a moment, he thanked her and walked away, leaving her with the flowers as a “random act of kindness”. Meanwhile, a gaggle of people filmed the encounter and, when asked, claimed they weren’t filming her.

Obviously, they were. The interaction was captured by the creator, Harrison Pawluk, and shared with his millions of followers. The TikTok has now been seen 64 million times. Many of the comments praise Pawluk’s generosity for being “super sweet”.

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But the woman, Maree, was able to flip the script. She spoke to ABC Radio Melbourne — yes, old media is still alive and kicking! — about how she was lied to, patronised and felt frustrated that Pawluk was profiting from her discomfort. (Pawluk’s team’s response was saccharine to the point of sociopathy: “Cynics may claim it’s for views, Harrison simply has a personal commitment to helping people feel more connected and trusting.” Sure, man, whatever you say).

What surprised me about the whole saga was just how large the response was. The experience of being made into TikTok content without permission remains, thankfully, a fairly rare experience. Even still, Pawluk’s video’s comment section is now bursting with comments criticising him, and her interview has been covered by media around the world.

Why did Maree’s story cause such a reaction? Curtin University’s professor of internet studies Tama Leaver reckons that the tale hits the same spot as the mega-popular Influencers in the Wild account: it reveals the reality behind the manufactured, manicured perspective created by creators.

I, for one, have always hated the “random acts of kindness” videos. They’re forced, weirdly moralistic — if you accept the premise that the people in the video are “sad”, why do they need to do something nice, like holding someone’s flowers, to deserve to be cheered up? It’s very transactional — and usually a complete farce. They’re not spontaneous acts motivated by altruism. These videos exist for one reason only: to feed the content machine.

Maree’s story hit a nerve because people are becoming more aware of the imbalance that exists between them and these top-level creators. Pawluk can give away a bouquet in order to power his high-paying career. He publishes his (warped) version of the encounter with tens of millions of viewers, and whoever is on the receiving end just has to cop it, usually. But this time, the person on the other end of a creator’s camera was able to tell their side of the story.

That’s where I would have liked to finish this section, but, alas, it would be remiss of me not to point out that, despite apologising on the Project, Pawluk has left the video online where it has been viewed another 7 million times since Maree spoke to the ABC. At the end of the day, all engagement is good engagement.

Hyperlinks

The Uber Files show how a tech company convinced the world it was innovative rather than just illegal

In a way, the 124,000 leaked documents were less revelatory than confirmatory: Uber used billions of dollars to fight an illegal war against workers and governments. (Crikey)

The Uber files: firm knew it launched illegally in Australia, then leaned on governments to change the law

And here’s the Australian part of the files. (Guardian Australia)

Chinese takeout

This is a painstaking investigation into how it appears that Bet365 is operating in China using hundreds of web domains, some running through Australia, with questionable legality. (Josimar Football)

WA Catholic school teacher forced to quit after students use cruel TikTok trend to out him as gay

An awful story about how tech can be used to bully. (The West Australian)

How TNT Radio became the home of Australian conspiracy-promoting politicians and personalities

Another look by me into the various alternative media infrastructure being created by people to propagate lies and conspiracy. (Crikey)

Content Corner

One of the particularly jarring parts about the latest COVID-19 wave is how public life seems practically unaffected by rising cases. I wanted to get a sense of whether people were also becoming more interested in these spiking cases, so I went to the source: the eggheads who’ve been tracking the pandemic.

Independent journalists and scientists made a name for themselves during 2020-21 by tracking COVID-19 cases better than the government did. Even as our attention wandered when restrictions lifted and cases shrunk, many of them continued to do the work. Now, they’re seeing those eyeballs come back.

Covidlive.com.au owner Anthony Macali says views on the website hit a low of around 35,000 daily views towards the end of June. Since then, daily views have nearly doubled to above 60,000. Juliette O’Brien says she’s seen about the same doubling with covid19data.com.au.

Macali says that daily views seem to correlate with the public debate about COVID-19 policy more than case numbers. Even as numbers spike again, they’re still a long way down since the last lockdowns. “It’s like the bitcoin chart,” Macali jokes.

While visits to covidlive.com.au have picked up, they’re still a long way down from their peak (Image: Anthony Macali)

It’s reassuring to know that while COVID-19 waves and variants come and go, our friendly nerds will always be there tracking them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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