TikTok’s catastrophic public-relations fallout over its suspension of a teen girl who posted anti-China videos has shown that it’s almost impossible to run a viral social-media platform while following Beijing’s rules.
It is mainly popular among teens, who create and share content that mostly involve memes, dances, and lip-syncing.
Simultaneously, it has faced mounting criticism and concern over its links to the Chinese government, which often compels domestic tech companies to censor content.
TikTok’s Chinese counterpart, Douyin — which does not share the same content or userbase as TikTok — has routinely purged anti-China videos from its platform.
Leaked internal instructions show China’s influence
TikTok, which is based in California, has repeatedly tried to distance itself from its Chinese links. ByteDance is currently trying to separate TikTok from much of its Chinese operations.
But a series of leaked internal instructions, published by multiple news outlets in recent months, show TikTok moderators being told to remove or demote politically and culturally sensitive posts. Here’s a rundown of those reports:
TikTok confirmed the guidelines in both reports, but said they were no longer in use and that “we have since made significant progress in establishing a more robust localized approach.”
On November 5, six former TikTok employees based in the US told The Washington Post that moderators in China told them to censor “culturally problematic” videos showing vaping, “heavy kissing and more suggestive dance moves,” and “social political topics.”
TikTok has said that it doesn’t censor political content or take instructions from China.
On November 22, the German news site Netzpolitik published a leaked excerpt from TikTok’s new moderation guidelines, which included instructions not to promote videos related to political protest.
The company did not deny the authenticity of the Netzpolitik documents, but said it “does not moderate content due to political sensitivities. Our moderation decisions are not influenced by any foreign government.”
On November 28, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank published a report claiming that ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, works closely with the Chinese government to endorse police content, facilitate human rights abuses, and surveil and censor content around the world.
TikTok has publicly apologized to Aziz, but she still isn’t convinced — meaning the company still has a lot to answer for.
“I really doubt that TikTok is ultimately saying the truth about what’s happening here,” Aziz told Business Insider on Wednesday. “I think that something is going on and TikTok doesn’t want people to find out what’s going in China.”