Written by: Cooper Stewart
Unless you have lived under a rock for the last year, you have most likely come across content from the popular social media video app “TikTok”. The app enables its users to share short videos of themselves that can be set to music and edited in various ways. Whether you fall into the camp that likes or dislikes it, one cannot help but admit its impressive and rapid surge in popularity, as the app currently has 500 million active users, making it the 9th most popular social network site in the world.
The creator of this app, ByteDance, has certainly reaped the benefits of this popularity, as the company is now worth an estimated 75 billion dollars. Interestingly enough, TikTok was not the first video-sharing app the company produced; it had created an app almost identical to TikTok years before its release. This app is known as Douylin and is essentially a version of TikTok that is available in China. The key difference between the two is that Douylin, unlike TikTok, must abide by Chinese censorship restrictions.
Despite TikTok operating outside of the Chinese censorship restrictions that its sister app has to follow, TikTok has routinely run into the controversy surrounding the issue of suppression on its platform. Specifically, TikTok has shown a tendency to crack down on content that portrays the Chinese government and its policies in a negative light. Recently, an Afghani-American teenager that produced popular makeup tutorials on the platform discovered her account was suspended immediately after she posted a video that spread awareness of the Uighur Muslim concentration camps in China, those which the Chinese government has repeatedly denied exist. The controversy caused TikTok to apologize and make a statement stating they do not “moderate content due to political sensitivities.” This statement seems extremely insincere given both the timing of the suspension and the content of the video, which correlates with the user actively being censored for promoting an opinion that runs contrary to Chinese government preferences.
Even before this recent controversy, TikTok has been known to suppress and silence anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dissenters on the platform. In late September 2019, TikTok’s instruction manual for moderators was leaked to the media. In the leaked guidelines, moderators were specifically instructed to censor any videos that mention “Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or religious groups banned by Beijing”, among many other issues that the CCP has been known to be sensitive to. When pressed for a statement, TikTok reiterated that these guidelines were outdated and not in practice. Almost two months later, the suspension of the American teenager’s account occurred shows that TikTok is still enforcing policies that are “outdated”. The app’s continuing actions of appearing publicly as politically neutral and then ruthlessly cracking down on dissent seems to demonstrate that the company’s professed neutrality is nothing but a thin veil to meet its agenda of crafting a pro-Chinese government atmosphere on their app.
Another important detail from the leak is TikTok’s willingness to crack down on dissent on the behalf of other countries. In the leaked moderation guidelines, one rule stated that no videos made could criticize or demonize “other countries’ history” and “policies, social rules of any country.” Such blatant openness of the company’s desire to comply with oppressive and restrictive governments has translated into TikTok crafting unique censors on a country-by-country basis, or for lack of better words, a perfectly tailored algorithm of suppression.
This pattern can be seen in the various countries in which TikTok is available. In Indonesia, TikTok was initially banned shortly after its introduction in the country because the Indonesian government believed the app contained content that was deemed “blasphemous”. In response, TikTok immediately formed a team that set about creating new censors for the app that fit the government’s requirements. Similarly in Turkey, it was discovered in late September that TikTok moderators there were instructed to censor LGBTQ content on the app, as well as videos that made fun of or criticized President Erdogan’s administration. Both cases follow the disturbing trend of TikTok working with restrictive governments to silence any public dissent and/or vulnerable groups of people. While social media in the past has often served as a tool for the disenfranchised to voice their opinions and call for change, TikTok has insidiously flipped the script and has created the perfect tool for authoritarian governments to crack down on digital free speech in their country.
With millions of users worldwide, it appears impossible to reverse the trend of TikTok’s spread across the globe. However, all one has to do to take a stand against this digital extension of the CCP and tool of oppression is to either not download the app or delete it from your smartphone. In this simple act of defiance, you can send a message that you will not tolerate censorship in any form, even if it comes packaged in a seemingly harmless social media app.