ByteDance is the Chinese powerhouse behind the viral video giant TikTok – which almost got banned in the US under scrutiny for the way it is handling user data, and in light of some form of its inevitable ties to the Chinese authorities.
But another point that comes up time and again is the way the company implements “moderation” i.e., censorship, across its various platforms like TikTok, as well as its mainland China “twin” Douyin, and news aggregator Toutiao.
Now an anonymous former BiteDance employee introduced as Li An, purports to reveal the ins-and-outs of that censorship, describing as his breaking point as the night his expressions of grief and outrage over the death of Dr. Li Wenliang – the early Covid whistleblower in China – got him banned on the giant platform Weibo.
Ahead of the launch of two Transparency Centers in the US, that should bolster TikTok’s credibility there, “Li” has decided to speak out from the vantage point of a former employee of ByteDance’s Trust and Safety support team.
This insider reveals that ByteDance’s content moderation team consisted of 20,000 moderators in early 2020, responsible both for Douyin and TikTok. Behind them were 100 to 150 engineers and 50 product team members, all tasked with making what “An” refers to as “ByteDance’s censorship machine” work.
“An” describes how they worked on a tool that ByteDance used to end any livestream regardless of content if it was in ethnic dialects – in the case of Uyghur, this process was automatic, without even requiring a moderator’s intervention.
Although ByteDance’s apps, at least in China, belong more to the entertainment than political class of platforms, the company is still well aware of the need to work on ways to quickly and efficiently stifle unwanted political speech, as a clear condition for its continued presence in the Chinese market.
“ByteDance’s powerful algorithms not only can make precise predictions and recommend content to users — one of the things it’s best known for in the rest of the world — but can also assist content moderators with swift censorship,” says this insider.
ByteDance is said to be a leading Chinese company in terms of resources it dedicates to moderation.
As for the ties with China’s state apparatus – “An” says they are not as strong as those of established Chinese tech giants – but the Cyberspace Administration “sometimes issues over 100 (censorship) directives a day.”