Since its acquisition of the app Musical.ly in 2017 and subsequent merger the following year, TikTok has rapidly become one of the most popular social platforms in the world, which makes this latest story about how Chinese politics are influencing user censorship very concerning. In November, an American teenager, Feroza Aziz, posted a subversive makeup tutorial that innocuously begins with instructions on how to curl your eyelashes before morphing into a call for awareness about the persecution of Uighur Muslims by the Chinese government. Not long after her video began to gain hundreds of thousands of views, her account was unceremoniously banned from the platform.
A spokesperson for ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, claimed it was over the content of another one of the teen’s videos in which she mentions Osama bin Laden. Aziz says the video in question was a joke, but her series about the plight of Uighur Muslims was very serious. Eventually, public scrutiny forced the company to respond, issuing an apology on Wednesday, November 27, and explaining their actions. Meanwhile, the US Congress is expected to soon present President Trump with proposed legislation calling for sanctions on Chinese officials in regard to human rights abuses against Uighurs.
This is far from TikTok’s first run-in with the accusation of censorship. Since its launch in 2018, the worldwide appeal of TikTok has helped the app become one of the most lucrative startups in the market, with estimated profits of ByteDance around $18 billion this year and the app (with its Chinese counterpart) downloaded over one billion times worldwide. Despite this global audience, more and more evidence seems to prove that TikTok is not like other social media sites, which tend to regulate content a lot less. This past October, ByteDance tapped K&L Gates, a law firm, to aid in modifying its moderation policies, which continue to be applied unevenly throughout the platform. TikTok has also confirmed that in the past, it has hidden the videos of disabled, fat, and LGBTQ creators, who it labeled as “particularly vulnerable” to bullying.
“This is something that I want to wholeheartedly stress: We do not censor any content based on political sensitivities,” Vanessa Pappas, the general manager of TikTok North America and Australia, told the New York Times. “Everything from the US market is driven from the US team. We have US moderation team, our head of trust and safety is in the US, it’s a US-led operation. We don’t do any type of censorship in that regard and wouldn’t even if we were asked.”
Back in September, the Guardian found documents proving that the app had once censored LGBTQ content in Turkey, although there is no legal ban against homosexuality in the country. It found that additional levels of censorship could be applied to the general moderation guidelines that already prohibit certain sensitive topics like Tiananmen Square and Tibet. An extra level of censorship intended for more conservative regions could target content that could be seen as vulgar or lewd, but the outlet found that Turkey’s guidelines also prohibited content that featured people drinking alcohol, non-Muslim religious figures, and criticism of the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. ByteDance told the Guardian it has since changed the moderation guidelines.
The concerns around censorship have come into sharp focus over the issue of the Hong King protests. Although Buzzfeed found no evidence of TikTok suppressing US-based users from creating content relating to Hong Kong, Quartz reported that ByteDance had also launched its own search engine Toutiao Search, which favors results from China’s state-sponsored outlets, skewing the news of protests in Hong Kong. The outlet also found that the US version of TikTok had few videos related to the protests, which brought up the suspicion that the app may be suspending or deleting videos of the demonstrations. Or, as the Buzzfeed article posits, it might just be evidence that American teens are not engaging with another country’s political news. However, in the wake of yet more concerns about TikTok and censorship, more videos have surfaced by users testing to see if their videos will be taken down or their accounts suspended. In addition to Aziz’s viral post about Uighur Muslims, others have also created their own videos to spread awareness.
TikTok’s quick proliferation and Chinese origins, which forces the company there to work with authorities, have been seen by some as a potential threat to national security. In a rare case of bipartisan support, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer raised concerns about TikTok in a letter to the US Army, as did Republican Senator Marco Rubio. In February, the Federal Trade Commission fined TikTok’s parent company, Bytedance, for $5.7 million for collecting data from underaged users. In response to concerns about the security around the personal data of millions of American TikTok users, Reuters said ByteDance will move American’s personal data storage to the US outside the reach of the Chinese government. However, a Washington Post report pointed out that Chinese managers in the company would often have final say over questions about moderation, interfering with the work of their Stateside colleagues.
The story of TikTok’s censorship will not end with Aziz’s tutorial video-turned-PSA about Uighur Muslims. Since many of the proposed changes by the company are still in progress, we’ll have to see if the company keeps their word or if US officials will take a more regulatory stance against the social media behemoth. But the problem is not just confined to TikTok, as other US users of Chinese-based platforms like WeChat have also reported incidents of suspended accounts for speaking against the country. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) stepped in to force the company Kulun to sell Grindr, the popular gay dating app, because it contained too much personal data about the US military soldiers. This may be a route the US government takes again if politicians’ calls to address security concerns are ignored by ByteDance. According to the BBC, ByteDance’s original Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, runs on a separate network from its American cousin in order to comply with Chinese regulations. Now, both UK and US officials are investigating the app for security concerns.