TikTok And Censorship

I recently noticed a trend of politicians starting accounts on the massively popular app TikTok. I live in Canada, and I was shocked NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is on there.

Even without political Ads, memes and censorship are going to impact politics and propaganda. If content moderation is soul-crushing on Instagram and Facebook, can you imagine if you are an app from censorship friendly Beijing?

TikTok has been criticized by US senators for censorship, privacy, and child safety. However it’s also a not so covert way the Chinese Government can manipulate the narrative of young people in North America and elsewhere.

TikTok is relatively new and the Chinese Government basically controls content moderation policies of technology companies in China. TikTok in North America is not immune from Censorship just as it’s not in Germany, for example.

As platforms of scale such as YouTube and Instagram struggle with their ability to moderate themselves this is a growing propaganda machine for China ready to be exploited and weaponized. While Huawei can pursue legal means to shut up rumors of this in France, China’s understanding of international law seems a bit archaic.

In October, 2019, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) requested that the US government conduct a formal investigation into whether the popular Chinese video app, TikTok, poses a national security risk by censoring content that upsets leaders in Beijing.

The Cold Tech Wars is Coming and It’s Real

The cold tech wars mean Chinese businesses will be seen differently as they become significant players in their areas such as Huawei, ByteDance, Alibaba, and others have become. How they are used to harvest data, profile people and create surveillance architecture to dissidents even in other countries will obviously be quite impressive as an emerging global police state that seeks expansion.

This expansion will be technological, economic, cultural and most of all, it will be about our data. Meanwhile TikTok denies US claims of censorship and privacy failings, claims its American brand operates independently, which is pretty much impossible. All Chinese technology companies practice censorship, they must comply with their government.

The reality is however, employees of TikTok in the US were reportedly pressured to censor ‘culturally problematic’ content that might offend the Chinese government. China is also sensitive about a great deal many things.

Censorship is a Normative Thing in Surveillance Capitalism of the 2020s

There are documents, that reveal by the Guardian for the first time, that precisely lay out how ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app.

Former TikTok employess based in the US told the Washington Post that China-based moderators would direct them to censor “objectionable” and “culturally problematic” videos, including those featuring vaping, “suggestive” dancing, and social and political issues.

TikTok has said that no “foreign government” makes decisions about censoring content, and that none of TikTok’s moderators are based in China. All of which is quite absurd, since TikTok as it has reached global scale is now more than ever under the purview of Beijing. This is because TikTok represents a unique opportunity for Chinese influence globally.

The app is owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance, founded in 2012. China will make sure ByteDance becomes not just the next Tencent or Facebook, but something quite next-level entirely. This is because this isn’t just the most valuable startup in the world, this is a company that could take Chinese Artificial Intelligence to another level, and will before 2030.

At the Last Futurist, this is another reason why we cover TikTok so often.

TikTok is on the Front Lines of Meme Propaganda

Censorship and data privacy have become hot-button issues between the U.S. and China in recent months, with Washington accusing Chinese tech giant Huawei of spying. As China’s stealth of IP has been successful, the next phase of cultural influence and indoctrination means having direct access to U.S. populations and TikTok achieves this in viral proportions that are impossible to regulate for anyone not deeply entrenched within ByteDance or the Chinese Government.

TikTok is sort of a natural successor to the once popular Vine. But there’s a lot that sets TikTok apart from its current competition. TikTok can influence global politics because mobile consumers have the attention span of a TikTok consumer, about that 15-second sweet spot of video.

“With over 110 million downloads in the U.S. alone, TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat and cultural manipulation device that replicates what Facebook became in its prime. It replicates it not with Ads however but viral memes that would be impossible for the U.S. to interfere with since they appear “organic”, when they can be completely staged, promoted, manipulated and pushed from the back-end.

Cheerfulness and Censorship

Not much mention of Hong Kong on TikTok you see. Ever wonder why?

But its happy-go-lucky rise was largely shaped by its Beijing-based parent company, which imposed strict rules on what could appear on the app in keeping with China’s restrictive view of acceptable speech. When I’ve spoken to TikTok employees, there is a certain fear of authority primed into them (a very real terror).

What’s happy on the outside you see, is not always good and well-adjusted on the inside. TikTok’s spontaneous and cheerfulness is for the most part manufactured. As manufactured as the false personas on Instagram with that censorship twist. In China, censorship is not a choice. For TikTok employees to say that only exists in China is beyond silly.

Former TikTok Employees are Coming Out with the Truth

Recently, The Guardian got hold of some moderation guidelines that show that certainly, the parent company, ByteDance has strict policies on what to censor and how the process of the tickets work. So even in Germany, the report by Nezpolitik showed how videos related to issues like Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Hong Kong would be suppressed in China, Netzpolitik set out to discover how TikTok moderates content in the West, specifically, German language content.

If that’s the reality in Germany for content, you would think censorship in the United States would be even more stringent.

Six ex-TikTok employees told the Washington Post that Chinese workers had the “final call” on what content was blocked or otherwise restricted. Of course, Beijing will always get the final call, insinuating anything differently is just a form of lying.

Never before has a platform grown as fast as TikTok. It’s literally China against the world for human rights violations of a global police-state rising with the aid of technology.

Former US TikTok employees told the Post that they were forced to adhere to rules set by China-based moderators and managers. The Chinese hierarchy is real, and it’s a brutal world when you are just a cog in the wheel.

Is TikTok Being Groomed into Being a Propaganda Machine of the Chinese State?

The guidelines divide banned material into two categories: some content is marked as a “violation”, which sees it deleted from the site entirely, and can lead to a user being banned from the service.

But lesser infringements are marked as “visible to self”, which leaves the content up but limits its distribution through TikTok’s algorithmically-curated feed. That sounds a bit like my experience with Medium recently.

The Post reported that US workers felt “subordinate” to Chinese employees, and often strugggled with “cultural conflicts, shifting guidelines and inconsistencies” with how ByteDance applied its rules to TikTok, a non-Chinese platform. However, this is just the beginning.

ByteDance will continue to grow and find more apps than just TikTok that will go viral globally, the Chinese government will make sure of that.

ByteDance operates a similar app there called Douyin, while TikTok operates in international markets outside of the country. But these are more for branding purposes. To assume TikTok as a consumer app is not under the direct control of the Chinese Government is simply hard to imagine, knowing how censorship actually works in China.

TikTok Censorship Care of Beijing Managers

The service even bans a specific list of 20 “foreign leaders or sensitive figures” including Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Kim Jong-un, Shinzo Abe, Park Geun-Hee, Joko Widodo, and Narendra Modi.

Notably absent from the list is Xi Jinping, the Chinese chairman. Now as Western politicians join TikTok, its ability to impact democracy will become very real very fast.

TikTok is seemingly devoid of Hong Kong issues, which guarantees that incredible censorship is taking place on the app. There’s frankly not enough TikTok workers outside of China to even accomplish the job.

Netzpolitik.org spoke to a source at TikTok, looked at moderation criteria and communications, and experimented with specially created accounts to see how well videos with China-critical content are visible on the platform.

Their report found that the German-language videos on TikTok are moderated from three locations, reports the source: Berlin, Barcelona and Beijing. At the German location, the leadership is Chinese. Work is carried out in 8-hour shifts, during which around 1,000 tickets have to be processed.

At night, German-speaking Chinese moderate content from Beijing. TikTok confirmed this to netzpolitik.org. Creepy and efficient folks.

Just as Google ranks content on its own criteria, so does TikTok. If your video isn’t cheerful and potentially viral in a positive light, sorry about that!

Delete Demote and Push

  • Videos that completely violate the conditions of the platform are deleted
  • Others are marked visible to self but no longer visible to others
  • Not for feed / not recommended
  • Strictly speaking, such contributions are not deleted – but in fact they no longer have an audience.

Content on TikTok can be blocked or throttled regionally. Sort of like how LinkedIn Works, which also needs to respect Chinese censorship. According to the ex-employees, content can be slowed down, but also entire hashtags.

TikTok is not a protest friendly platform. It’s going for cheerfulness, cheerfulness with censorship. Welcome to the 2020s guys! Just dance, ByteDance.

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