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TikTok’s Censorship Issues

TikTok has fast become one of the quickest growing social networks. However, the Chinese platform has recently come under fire following leaked documents revealing censored videos. Sources claim that videos showing people with disabilities, homosexuals or overweight people were hidden from view in a move to “protect vulnerable users.” Thanks to a strange policy, moderators were encouraged to limit the reach of some users, placing them on a ‘special users’ list, with the concern that they would be more vulnerable to bullying and internet trolls.

Website netzpolitik.org obtained documents that highlighted TikTok’s guidelines and spoke with a reliable source. In the documents, ByteDance, the Beijing-based technology company who owns TikTok, details how to deal with bullying with dubious methods of controlling it. In their moderation rules is a section called “Imagery depicting a subject highly vulnerable to cyber bullying” and discusses users who are “susceptible to harassment or cyberbullying based on their physical or mental condition.”

TikTok moderators are encouraged to mark accounts of people who have disabilities as ‘Risk 4’, meaning the video will only be available in the country the user uploaded it, resulting in some accounts only having a reach of around 5.5 million people — depending on their country’s user numbers — rather than their global audience, which is nearer to one billion people.

There were further restrictions for accounts where the owners were deemed extremely vulnerable. If the videos exceeded 6,000 to 10,000 views they were automatically tagged as “Auto R,” meaning if they exceeded these numbers they would automatically be placed in the ‘not recommended’ category.

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This means the algorithms will not allow the video to appear in the For You Feed that is shown when you first open the app.

Although many users may not acknowledge their disability, TikTok’s guidelines state that moderators need to look for “autism,” “Down syndrome,” and “facial disfigurements.” If a moderator deems that someone in the video has these characteristics the video is restricted. Each moderator has around 30 seconds to make these decisions.

Many are asking how someone can acknowledge somebody has any of the disorders within such a short time and the moderators appear to be as confused as everyone else. It seems that even with worldwide debates looking at the visibility of disabled people in the media, while many are asking for a barrier-free internet and open visibility, TikTok is going out of its way to block such users.

AbilityWatch’s Constantin Grosch thinks the policy is “overriding and exclusionary,” saying:

“The regulation listed here transforms this behavior into new digital platforms in which the visibility of disabled people is deliberately reduced out of misunderstood and unnecessary care.”

A growing online bullying issue is ghosting — a practice of deliberately and suddenly stopping all communication with another to end a relationship with them — which makes the TikTok policy even more shocking. Rather than tackling online bullying, including ghosting and internet trolls, it appears TikTok would rather restrict the victims.

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One source familiar with the moderating rules reported that staff repeatedly pointed out the problems of this policy and asked for a more sensitive and meaningful one. In November, The Washington Post had already reported on clashes between America’s employees and the rule makers in China, with many U.S. employees unhappy they had to restrict further videos including heated debates, heavy kissing, and political discussions.

While TikTok states that the U.S. operation is not required to carry out censorship, employees have stated that the final decisions on videos being restricted are made in Beijing. The potential influence Beijing could have in America has seen the Committee on Foreign Investment investigate the deals that ByteDance has had, especially in relation to Musical.ly, with many legal experts asking U.S. officials to investigate “a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore.”

Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s General Manager in America commented:

“TikTok has grown quickly, much like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat grew during their early years. And like those platforms, growth has posed challenges in terms of making sure our policies and practices keep up.”

One of the main concerns with TikTok is its lack of transparency on policies with no details being released about moderating decisions until recently. However, recent pressures have encouraged them to distance themselves from accusations that the app’s content is moderated by the Chinese government — something the Hong Kong protestors have claimed after some of their videos were censored.

ByteDance purchased Musical.ly in 2017 and promptly incorporated it into their own TikTok company, resulting in many young Americans uploading stunts, dances and stories in the millions, enabling TikTok to increase in value to around $75 billion, more than Snapchat and Uber combined. ByteDance is owned by one of China’s richest businessmen, Zhang Yimin.

There are now a reported one billion users worldwide meaning TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform in history. But will their censorship issues be their downfall?