TikTok: True Colors?

October 22, 2019

Since it emerged from China in 2017, the video sharing app TikTok has become very popular. In fact, it became the most downloaded app in October of the following year, after merging with Musical.ly. That deal opened up the U.S. market, in particular, to TikTok. Americans have since been having a blast with the short-form video app, whose stated mission is to “inspire creativity and joy.” The Verge, however, reminds us where this software came from—and how its owners behave—in the article, “It Turns Out There Really Is an American Social Network Censoring Political Speech.”

Reporter Casey Newton grants that US-based social networks have their limits, removing hate speech, violence, and sexual content from their platforms. However, that is a far cry from the types of censorship that are common in China. Newton points to a piece by Alex Hern in The Guardian that details how TikTok has directed its moderators to censor content about Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the Falun Gong religious group. It is worth mentioning that TikTok’s producer, ByteDance, maintains a separate version of the app (Douyin) for use within China’s borders. This suppression documented in the Guardian story, then, is specifically for the rest of us. Newton writes:

“As Hern notes, suspicions about TikTok’s censorship are on the rise. Earlier this month, as protests raged, the Washington Post reported that a search for #hongkong turned up ‘playful selfies, food photos and singalongs, with barely a hint of unrest in sight.’ In August, an Australian think tank called for regulators to look into the app amid evidence it was quashing videos about Hong Kong protests. On the one hand, it’s no surprise that TikTok is censoring political speech. Censorship is a mandate for any Chinese internet company, and ByteDance has had multiple run-ins with the Communist party already. In one case, Chinese regulators ordered its news app Toutiao to shut down for 24 hours after discovering unspecified ‘inappropriate content.’ In another case, they forced ByteDance to shutter a social app called Neihan Duanzi, which let people share jokes and videos. In the aftermath, the company’s founder apologized profusely — and pledged to hire 4,000 new censors, bringing the total to 10,000.”

For its part, TikTok insists the Guardian-revealed guidelines have been replaced with more “localized approaches,” and that they now consult outside industry leaders in creating new policies. Newton shares a link to TikTok’s publicly posted community guidelines, but notes it contains no mention of political posts. I wonder why that could be.

Cynthia Murrell, October 22, 2019

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