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Hong Kong Protests and Chechen Separatism: What TikTok Censors

The social network promotes exclusively positive content and obeys the agenda of the Chinese authorities.

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The Guardian and The New Yorker almost simultaneously released materials on how TikTok algorithms and moderation work. The New Yorker talked with former and current employees of the company, users of the social network and those who earn on it. And at the disposal of The Guardian were closed instructions for moderators.

TikTok moderators have a stop list of 20 foreign leaders. Among them is Putin

The instructions for moderators spell out a stop list of twenty foreign leaders and “persons of national importance”. Among them are the head of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un and her previous leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the head of the Japanese government, Shinzo Abe, US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, ideologist of the Indian Independence Movement Mahatma Gandhi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Videos with persons from the stop list are deleted, as well as videos in support of the Falun Gong movement and the Aum Shinrique sect. Such publications threaten users with blocking. TikTok algorithms restrict the distribution of videos about the Cambodian genocide, critics of the Chinese political system, and information about separatism in Chechnya, Northern Ireland, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Service censored videos of Hong Kong and Uyghur protesters

TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance and is subject to the policies of the Chinese authorities. Inconvenient topics for them are blocked or limited in distribution. For example, the hashtag #HongKong TikTok produces a lot of videos, among which there are almost no videos about the protests in Hong Kong . On the hashtag # protest, you can find information about stocks in London, Melbourne, South Africa, India, but almost nothing about Hong Kong. For comparison, there are many posts on this topic on Instagram for both hashtags.

The company explains this with the small TikTok user base in Hong Kong: there are less than 150 thousand daily active users. On the other hand, the same applies to Twitter, where protest videos have been violated, despite the small number of Hong Kong registered on the social network.

In August, the Uyghurs, the Muslim people who are oppressed in China, began to upload videos of their missing loved ones. On one of them, a tearful girl, with sad music, raised four fingers, while a photograph with four people hung on her background. In Mandarin, the words “four” and “death” are pronounced the same. Many of these videos from TikTok removed.

TikTok purposefully promotes positive content

The YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram algorithms take advantage of people’s interests for their own benefit. In the case of TikTok, it becomes difficult to share their own interests and those that are imposed on the social network. The algorithm is aimed at promoting everything that can catch the eye and cause positive emotions. There are win-win themes, for example, cute dogs under the hashtag #TikTokDogs .

The company has a team that contacts musicians whose songs become viral and trains them to use the platform more effectively. A list of “trending hashtags that the company plans to promote” is sent weekly to selected media companies. Among these hashtags were #BeachDay and #AlwaysHustling . Uploading a video is recommended no earlier than the day before the hashtag starts.

To avoid blocking in India, the company promised to invest a billion dollars in the local market

In India, three deaths from injuries sustained during the creation of a video in TikTok were recorded: in the first case, a man posed with a gun, in the second he dangled on the railway tracks, another incident occurred when he tried to put three people on a moving bicycle. In April, the local government temporarily banned downloading the application, citing the fact that it endangered minors and showed them pornography.

Due to the ban, ByteDance was losing five hundred thousand dollars a day. In court, the company said it would invest a billion dollars in the Indian market over the next three years and would hire more locals. After that, the ban was lifted.

TikTok owner claims moderation has become less rude

ByteDance, which owns the social network, claims that the documents discovered by journalists have not been effective since May 2019, and the approach of the moderators has become more “localized.”

“In the early days of TikTok, our approach to minimizing conflicts on the site was tougher,” ByteDance said. Now, according to service representatives, moderators use instructions that include problems in specific regions.

When TikTok “took off” all over the world, we realized that our approach was wrong, and began to work on expanding the local teams that subtly feel every market. We have implemented a localized approach throughout.


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