The popular TikTok social media video app, which hundreds of millions around the world follow, has become a victim of Beijing’s censors, according to reports in Western media.
Beijing’s long arm of thought control and content blackout has not spared the overseas version of Douyin (抖音), as TikTok is known in China, even though overseas users mainly share fluff, short lip-sync songs, comedy and other viral videos on the platform.
TikTok’s developer, the Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance, previously claimed that servers of the app popular among millennials in Southeast Asia, Australia and North America were located outside China for better user experience.
The company noted at the end of 2018 that TikTok’s user base had hit the 500 million mark.
But overseas newspapers including The Guardian and US tech magazine Wired recently obtained what was titled “TikTok moderation guidelines,” which, part and parcel, was ByteDance’s own rules and codes to put the app in Beijing’s straitjacket of censorship.
It was reported that ByteDance censors political content on its app, sticking to Beijing’s strict rules on what can be allowed and what cannot, in the run-up to the Communist republic’s 70th anniversary.
On top of the usual rules against hate speech and evil cults also adopted by social media platforms in the West, TikTok’s guidelines divide problematic content into two categories.
Some clips must be deleted and their publishers put on notice if the clips are about political incidents such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, while other “infringing content” may violate others’ copyright is pulled from the app’s algorithmically-curated feed and is visible only to the publisher himself, according to the reports.
ByteDance has been adept at couching its ban on criticism of China’s socialist system in a more general ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country such as constitutional monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc.”
TikTok also states explicitly in its user’s agreement that it will ban content instigating separatism or religious and ethnic conflicts, like those agitating the independence of Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
The revelation has put TikTok and ByteDance in the same league as Tencent, Sina, Baidu, Alibaba and other China tech and social media companies that all examine the posts, pictures and videos from their users, under Beijing’s imperative to ensure “correct content” when hundreds of millions of users in and outside China spend hours daily on their apps scrolling videos and sharing posts.
Yet it also appears that given the millions of clips being uploaded onto TikTok each day, its censors and specially-designed algorithms are overwhelmed and occasionally let news Beijing may not like filter through the iron curtain.
Wire reported that some overseas Uyghurs can gain a peep into the state of Xinjiang and the lives of their relatives and friends if there are videos and footage on TikTok, mostly about mosques, orphanages and propaganda rallies and re-education camps in the restive province in northwestern China that has been put in an information lockdown for years.
— Uyghur Bulletin (@UyghurBulletin) September 24, 2019
As soon as they find a video of interest, these overseas Uyghurs will download and archive it before it is censored, for reposting on a Twitter page dedicated to revealing Beijing’s clampdown in Xinjiang.