The ‘Brand Vandalism’ Is Coming From Inside the House

I cannot recall much of the news from when I was a kid, but I distinctly remember a story about a home invasion where some intruders supposedly destroyed a bunch of valuables and covered the walls in graffiti. That narrative fell apart when police noticed the homeowner’s most prized possessions were untouched; they concluded it was insurance fraud. Some guy vandalized his stuff — actually, mostly his spouse’s stuff — and assumed there would be little investigation before blaming reckless youths.

In a similar vein — though without the fraud — comes this story from Rob Walker in Fast Company, carrying the headline “How a Viral TikTok Trend Vandalized Kia’s Brand”. Sure sounds like the youth these days have some kind of vendetta against Kia specifically, right? How are the TikTokers ruining Kia’s brand?

The “Kia Challenge” — involving videos sharing a purportedly straightforward hack that made it fairly easy to steal certain Kia and Hyundai models — initially flared up last summer. It briefly became a sensational-news staple, with media reports focused on alleged instances of thrill-seeking teens ending up in fiery wrecks. The how-to videos were promptly purged from TikTok. But unlike some scary-sounding viral “trends” that turn out to be mostly media hype (Nyquil Chicken, etc.), the spread of this car-theft how-to has had legs.

This is the second paragraph of the piece, and what follows are a series of statistics about increasing theft of Hyundais and Kias across the United States. And it is alarming — according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the rate of theft reports for cars from these two manufacturers were nearly twice as high as for other makes, and their models claimed four spots in the top twenty list.

But that is in the U.S.; in Canada, the list looks very different. Not a single Hyundai or Kia model appears in the national top-ten list released by the Équité Association, and the only mention of either manufacturer is in the number nine spot of the thefts in the combined Atlantic provinces. The Canadian auto market looks very similar to that of the U.S. because we are only one-ninth as populous and, so, automakers rarely develop or import vehicles specifically for our drivers. But the auto theft charts indicate something else is happening in this country.

I will address how that is the case in a moment, but first we need to see how Walker describes why these cars are getting stolen at such high rates:

Without getting into some finer points about how to steal a car, the process involves using a USB cable to bypass the ignition. Evidently, Kia models from 2011-2021 and Hyundai models from 2015-2021 lack an anti-theft “immobilizer” feature common to many contemporary ignition-technology systems.

This sounds like a fairly noteworthy design flaw, but at first most of the attention was focused on social media’s role in spreading nefarious information. […]

To be clear, it is a noteworthy design flaw, and it explains why the U.S. and Canadian auto theft statistics diverge so drastically. Since 2007, cars sold in Canada have been required by law to be equipped with immobilizers. Hyundai and Kia — which have mutual part-ownership and share some development costs — apparently realized they were not obligated to equip their vehicles with such technology in the U.S., so they neglected to do so. Whether that was for cost savings reasons or simply laziness seems to be the kind of thing they would not be keen to advertise, but both makes began fitting new U.S. vehicles with immobilizers after reports of this oversight gained momentum.

Yes, the ease of spreading information on TikTok seems to have accelerated how many people know about this design flaw. It is important for the company to be moderating its platform when it notices it is being used to encourage theft instead of advising owners of ways to protect their cars. But it is important to publicize flaws like these because owners of these cars need to be made aware of their vulnerabilities. In 2010, reporters at an ABC affiliate in Detroit found SUVs made by General Motors could be stolen within seconds because the manufacturer decided electronic security measures eliminated the need for mechanical measures. A specific model shared by Citroën, Peugeot, and Toyota was known to be easy to steal in the mid-2000s. A family friend was able to start his 1980s pickup truck by simply twisting the winged ignition switch without a key in it. It is possible knowing any of this information would help some criminals target certain models, but there are far more owners who should be aware of vulnerabilities so they can protect themselves.

To say TikTok caused Kia’s reputation to nosedive is an overreach. It and Hyundai decided not to equip their U.S.-market vehicles with the same anti-theft measure which is standard on cars sold in Canada thanks to regulatory oversight. While awareness could help some owners reduce their vulnerability to theft, prevention would have been an even more effective measure. Decreasing vehicle theft should be a worthwhile goal unto itself because, as Walker explains, it has knock-on effects:

“I don’t want to ride in a car with somebody who has a Kia, I’m not comfortable parking my car or being in a car with somebody who is going to park next to a Kia,” one disgruntled ex-Kia owner told a St. Louis news station. “I kind of just stay away from it because they’re like a target.”

Kia and Hyundai, like General Motors before, cannot blame anyone else for their corner-cutting. It seems social media platforms are doing their best to minimize the spread of tutorial videos, but I do not think anyone should point at TikTok when criminals take advantage of the bad decision the manufacturer made. I am not convinced a “challenge” hashtag turns most average people into car thieves.

All of this is yet another story in the ongoing series of exhibits of social media needing effective moderation and, more importantly, regulators crafting rules to avert disaster before it occurs. This is true of TikTok itself. If we are serious about making things better — just, like, generally — we need expectations for what that ought to look like.