Ex-TikTok workers say firm follows Chinese censorship guidelines

Senators question whether China's government is influencing TikTok.
Image: Facebook | TikTok

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) opened an investigation into the popular video sharing service TikTok. The organization wants to know if the service’s ownership by a Chinese company, ByteDance, represents a threat to American national security. In response, the social network claimed that no foreign government has a say in its operations.

However, a new report featuring input from its former employees contradicts TikTok’s quote about its operations.

‘Haven of Light and Positive Video’

On Tuesday, the Washington Post published an interview with six ex-TikTok workers regarding their former employer. The group claimed that they received instructions from Chinese-based moderators to censor certain content. In particular, the employees restricted or blocked videos featuring suggestive dancing, vaping, heavy kissing, and discussions of marijuana usage.

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As such, the group believes that ByteDance censors content on its platform that would displease the Chinese government.

The former TikTok employees also said that they were directed to demote or remove content featuring “social or political topics.” The staffers explained that their Chinese managers wanted to keep the platform “a haven of light and positive video.” Meanwhile, the American moderators noted that they received inconsistent guideless that even prohibited the yonic-influenced work of painter Georgia O’Keefe.

One ex-ByteDance manager summed up the situation by saying that the Sino company has divided priorities. “They want to be a global company, and numbers-wise, they’ve had that success,” said the anonymous official. “But the purse is still in China: The money always comes from there, and the decisions all come from there.”

Censorship Allegations

In September, The Guardian also reported that TikTok removes any content from its service that Beijing deems controversial or inappropriate. The publication found company guidelines indicating that ByteDance censors mentions of Tibetan independence, Tiananmen Square, and the Falun Gong religious group.

The firm also banned mentions of specific political leaders including President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Oddly, the aggressively image-conscious Chinese President Xi Jinping is not on TikTok’s blacklist.

The Guardian did note, however, that the platform directed moderators to hide content critical of the Chinese government.

ByteDance Responds

In response to The Washington Post’s expose, ByteDance claimed that Chinese-based moderators do not review content on TikTok. Conversely, the social media company said that The Guardian obtained out-of-date content guidelines. The firm explained that, at launch, it previously employed broad policies to eliminate posts fostering tensions between different ethnic and religious groups.

ByteDance notes that it created new TikTok content policies in May that feature more localization and nuance.

The Sino corporation launched its popular video sharing service as a China-only product called Douyin in 2016. It then launched an identical non-domestic service called TikTok a year later. Shortly after, the company spent $1 billion to acquire Musical.ly, a similar competitor, and integrated it into TikTok. Currently, the popular application has been downloaded more than 110 million times in the United States.

However, if the CFIUS determines that ByteDance’s ownership of the service represents a threat to national security, it has the authority to force the Chinese company to divest its Musical.ly assets. Consequently, the agency could effectively force the service out of the U.S. market.

In the past, ByteDance has insisted that it maintains its TikTok user data in America. As such, the firm claims that the Chinese government has no authority to compel it to turn over U.S. consumer information. It also says that Beijing has never requested for content to be removed from its international video sharing service.

However, Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Samantha Hoffman told The Verge that ByteDance can’t claim that TikTok has real operational autonomy. As a Chinese-based company, it is subject to the Communist nation’s data-sharing laws. “It doesn’t matter about the intent of the person setting up the company,” said Hoffman. “It’s not about that. It’s about how the system operates.”