Chinese tech giant ByteDance’s approach to its flagship app, TikTok, is famously granular: the app has a different name in the Chinese market, while content is stored on servers in different jurisdictions to avoid conflict with local laws.
Aware of the possible negative connotation regarding its origin, ByteDance also makes sure to mute that particular point when marketing the viral video app outside China. But the app that has over a billion users – 40 percent of them abroad, is now coming under increased scrutiny in the West.
Thus The Guardian went through TikTok’s moderation guidelines applied globally to report that it found evidence of political censorship complying with Chinese rules. But ByteDance said that these are in fact old guidelines, and once again underlined its market strategy of a “localized approach across everything from product, to team, to policy development.”
But even if the idea is to adapt the product to different markets, it would appear that at least until May TikTok moderators were enforcing China’s state policy on restricting certain types of content and speech. According to the Guardian report, this concerns a well-known and expected cast of China’s “usual suspects”: criticism of the authorities, mentions, and discussions of the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, the Falun Gong religious movement, and the status of Taiwan and Tibet, among others.
This confirms what many have thought for a while.
This would mean that users worldwide had been subjected to Chinese state censorship thanks to the work of TikTok moderators, likely without being aware of why their content was effectively “deranked” – i.e., “visible to self” but unlikely to reach other users as it was restricted in their feeds – a technique also often used by Facebook, for example.
That’s a pretty big setback on a viral video platform, but not as bad as having content deleted, which TikTok also did when it comes to videos that touched on topics explicitly forbidden by China’s censorship.
Explaining this moderation policy that is now being “phased out,” ByteDance said the original goal was to not censorship – but preventing conflict from the real world spilling over to the platform.
TikTok is not even available in mainland China – there the app is called Douyin – but recently, reports suggested that TikTok may have also censored content emerging from the Hong Kong protests.