A leaked document detailing the site’s moderation guidelines revealed that the social media network instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.
The Guardian reports that ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered tech giant that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app.
Bytedance has told the Guardian that the information they are going from is outdated and that the restricting guidelines were phased out in May 2019, before the current ongoing and raging protests in Hong Kong began.
People world over have begun to become suspicious of TikTok about the reporting of the protests, or lack thereof.
A Washington Post report earlier this month noted that a search on the site for Hong Kong revealed: “barely a hint of unrest in sight.” Many believe that talk of the uprising has been censored for political reasons.
The leaked guidelines divided banned material into two categories:
- “A Violation,” which sees the content removed immediately and could possibly result in the poster being banned from the site.
- “Visible to Self” which means the content is left up but distribution will be limited through TikTok’s algorithmically-curated feed.
According to the Guardian, guidelines covering China are in a section about hate speech and religion.
Criticism of China’s socialist system comes under a general ban of criticism towards the policies and social rules of any country.
A ban covering the “demonisation” or “distortion” of local or other countries’ history includes the example of the Tiananmen Square ‘incident,’ but also the May 1998 riots of Indonesia and the Cambodian genocide.
Another general-purpose rule bans “highly controversial topics, such as separatism, religion sects conflicts, conflicts between ethnic groups, for instance exaggerating the Islamic sects conflicts, inciting the independence of Northern Ireland, Republic of Chechnya, Tibet and Taiwan and exaggerating the ethnic conflict between black and white.”
All of the above guidelines will see relating posts marked as “visible to self” while posts promoting Falun Gong will be labelled outright as a “violation” as the banned organisation has been earmarked as a “group promoting suicide.”
The service also bans a specific list of 20 “foreign leaders or sensitive figures” including Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Kim Jong-un, Shinzo Abe, Park Geun-Hee, Joko Widodo and Narendra Modi. Curiously absent from the list is Xi Jinping, the Chinese chairman.
In response to the Guardian’s findings, Bytedance said:
“In TikTok’s early days we took a blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform, and our moderation guidelines allowed penalties to be given for things like content that promoted conflict, such as between religious sects or ethnic groups, spanning a number of regions around the world,” the company told the newspaper.
“As TikTok began to take off globally last year, we recognised that this was not the correct approach, and began working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market. As we’ve grown, we’ve implemented this localised approach across everything from product, to team, to policy development.”
TikTok was launched in China in 2016 under the name Douyin and quickly grew to 100 million users. In 2017, Bytedance bought American company Musical.ly, another short video music app, which added 30 million more users.
TikTok was the most-downloaded item on the iOS App Store worldwide in the first half of 2018 and the app remains hugely popular, especially among its core user base of under-25s.
At the beginning of this year, TikTok had half a billion active users, 40% of which were outside China.
Zhang Yiming (张一鸣)