An explosive new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has labelled popular app TikTok “heavy-handed” and suggested it is using its global scale to advance Beijing’s political agenda.
The Mapping more of China’s tech giants: AI and surveillance report looks at TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, which it says “collaborates with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state’s propaganda”.
“ByteDance is uniquely susceptible to other problems that come with its closeness to the censorship and surveillance apparatus of the CCP (Communist Party of China)-led state,” the report states.
“Beijing has demonstrated a propensity for controlling and shaping overseas Chinese-language media.
“The meteoric growth of TikTok now puts the CCP in a position where it can attempt to do the same on a largely non-Chinese speaking platform—with the help of an advanced AI-powered algorithm.”
Unlike earlier Chinese social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo, TikTok has managed to breach international markets with relative ease.
And this has caused problems, says the report.
ASPI compares TikTok with its Western social media counterparts, which have “tended to favour as much free speech as possible”.
TikTok, on the other hand, “has been heavy-handed, projecting Beijing’s political neuroses onto the politics of other countries”, according to ASPI.
It comes after American teenager Feroza Aziz was locked out of her account for posting a viral clip which critiqued China’s treatment of Ulighur Muslims.
— feroza.x (@x_feroza) November 25, 2019
TikTok has since apologised for the incident and lifted the ban.
The ASPI report points to a handful of similar recent news stories that indicate TikTok’s strong ties to the Chinese government, including a leak from a former content moderator who told the Times “managers in the United States had instructed moderators to hide videos that included any political messages or themes, not just those related to China”.
The video-sharing platform has made a concerted effort to distance itself from China of late, telling the New York Times in October: “To be clear: we do not remove videos based on the presence of Hong Kong protest content.”
ByteDance has also separated the TikTok business development, marketing and legal teams from those of its Chinese app, Douyin.
It has also vowed to not store US users’ personal data in China, where the company is headquartered and has hired auditors to assist with this.
Despite the strong accusations from ASPI and the negative media stories, TikTok maintains it has no strong ties to the Chinese government.
“The work of preserving TikTok as a safe, positive, and welcoming environment for our users, while also protecting our users’ freedom of creative expression to post content that may be serious or uncomfortable, is complex and challenging,” a TikTok spokesperson told B&T.
“TikTok does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China. We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period. We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”
TikTok conceded content moderation on the platform has not always been seamless, but confirmed the current policy is better suited to the complexities of social media.
“In TikTok’s early days, we took a blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform, and a previous version of our moderation guidelines allowed penalties to be given for things like content that promotes conflict between religious sects or ethnic groups, spanning a number of regions around the world. The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use,” said the spokesperson.
“As TikTok started taking off in new markets, we are working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market. We’ve been implementing this localised approach as we’ve grown.”