TikTok's catastrophic handling of a teen who posted anti-China videos shows it is almost impossible to run a viral platform while following China's rules

tiktok feroza azizA composite image of TikTok's logo and Feroza Aziz.Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters; Feroza Aziz/TikTok
  • TikTok publicly apologized to a 17-year-old teenage girl who was suspended from the platform shortly after posting a series of videos condemning China's oppression of the Uighur Muslims.
  • Feroza Aziz remains unconvinced by TikTok's apology, saying she believes TikTok is helping China censor politically sensitive content.
  • TikTok is owned by a Chinese company. Tech firms in China often adhere to the Communist Party's demands to censor politically sensitive content.
  • TikTok has repeatedly denied censoring or demoting politically controversial content, and tried to emphasize its fun and lighthearted videos instead. It's not doing a great job.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

TikTok's catastrophic public-relations fallout over its suspension of a teen girl who posted anti-China videos has shown that it's almost impossible to run a viral social-media platform while following Beijing's rules.

On Wednesday, the video-streaming app issued a public apology to 17-year-old Feroza Aziz, whose account was suspended after she posted a series of viral videos condemning China's mass surveillance and detention of Uighur Muslims.

TikTok has repeatedly denied suspending Aziz over the anti-China clips, claiming she was suspended for posting a video featuring the terrorist Osama bin Laden on a previous account.

That video showed a list of celebrity crushes, with bin Laden's image added as part of "dark humor" at the end, Aziz told Business Insider on Wednesday.

Aziz has publicly doubted that the bin Laden video was the cause of her suspension, saying she thinks she was punished for standing up to China instead.

The inherent difficulty of running a social media platform according to China's rules

The entire episode has brought to light the inherent difficulty of running a viral social-media platform while being under China's watchful eye.

TikTok, which is run by Chinese company ByteDance, has exploded in popularity since it launched in 2017, having accumulated a total of 1.5 billion downloads in two years and outperforming Instagram in app downloads this year.

It is mainly popular among teens, who create and share content that mostly involve memes, dances, and lip-syncing.

Man walks past a sign of ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at an expo in HangzhouA man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance's app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 18, 2019.China Stringer Network/Reuters

Simultaneously, it has faced mounting criticism and concern over its links to the Chinese government, which often compels domestic tech companies to censor content.

TikTok's Chinese counterpart, Douyin - which does not share the same content or userbase as TikTok - has routinely purged anti-China videos from its platform.

Leaked internal instructions show China's influence

TikTok, which is based in California, has repeatedly tried to distance itself from its Chinese links. ByteDance is currently trying to separate TikTok from much of its Chinese operations.

feroza aziz tiktok uighurFeroza Aziz's videos protesting the Chinese government over its treatment of Uighur Muslims went viral. Then she got notified that her account was suspended.Feroza Aziz/TikTok

But a series of leaked internal instructions, published by multiple news outlets in recent months, show TikTok moderators being told to remove or demote politically and culturally sensitive posts. Here's a rundown of those reports:

  • In September, The Guardian reported on leaked internal guidelines instructing moderators to censor content that criticize controversial topics about China, such as its socialist system, Tiananmen Square, and Tibet.
  • Moderators were also told to censor LGBTQ content in conservative countries, like Turkey, according to The Guardian.
  • TikTok confirmed the guidelines in both reports, but said they were no longer in use and that "we have since made significant progress in establishing a more robust localized approach."
  • On November 5, six former TikTok employees based in the US told The Washington Post that moderators in China told them to censor "culturally problematic" videos showing vaping, "heavy kissing and more suggestive dance moves," and "social political topics."
  • TikTok has said that it doesn't censor political content or take instructions from China.
  • On November 22, the German news site Netzpolitik published a leaked excerpt from TikTok's new moderation guidelines, which included instructions not to promote videos related to political protest.
  • The company did not deny the authenticity of the Netzpolitik documents, but said it "does not moderate content due to political sensitivities. Our moderation decisions are not influenced by any foreign government."
  • On November 28, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) think tank published a report claiming that ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, works closely with the Chinese government to endorse police content, facilitate human rights abuses, and surveil and censor content around the world.
  • Bytedance denied all of ASPI's claims.
  • TikTok has also repeatedly insisted that it protects user data and has not handed them over to the Chinese government, which has the power to compel tech firms to hand over personal data and private conversations, without the platforms having to notify users.

Alex Zhu tiktokJohn Phillips/Getty Images for TechCrunch

TikTok has been keen to emphasize its lighthearted side, with the company's leader Alex Zhu telling The New York Times earlier this month that political discussion is allowed as long as it aligns with the platform's "creative and joyful experience."

The US military is trying to figure out what China can 'see' inside TikTok

But despite these attempts, it has not managed to shake off any suspicion of its links to Chinese censorship.

The US Army and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a national-security panel, are currently investigating how it handles user data.

TikTok has publicly apologized to Aziz, but she still isn't convinced - meaning the company still has a lot to answer for.

"I really doubt that TikTok is ultimately saying the truth about what's happening here," Aziz told Business Insider on Wednesday. "I think that something is going on and TikTok doesn't want people to find out what's going in China."

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