The Interface

By Casey Newton

TikTok gets caught in the middle



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July 8 · Issue #538 · View online
The Interface
A recurring theme of this newsletter is that I write about TikTok, make some dark prediction about its future, and then turn out to be totally wrong. In that spirit, I thought today we could look at the particularly newsy week the ByteDance-owned video app has had, and then contribute some additional speculation that I will later have to disown or apologize for.
Yesterday we talked about the audio-only social network Clubhouse, which found itself at the center of controversy after failing to take action or even make a public comment after users began to experience harassment within the app. Clubhouse took the same approach to trust and safety issues as most embryonic American social networks: do the bare minimum, and address any issues only after some portion of your user base identifies a crisis.
TikTok, on the other hand, took the opposite approach: censor almost everything, and allow new types of content only after angry public pressure campaigns. This dynamic was captured beautifully on Wednesday in a story in the Wall Street Journal that charts the company’s ever-evolving content policies, which have grudgingly adjusted over the past several months to welcome such previously verboten content as political protests, MAGA hats, “more than two inches of cleavage,” and … tattoos? Here are Georgia Wells, Shan Li , Liza Lin and Erich Schwartzel:
As TikTok has slowly rolled back certain restrictions, former moderators said they have been able to allow some curse words and, depending on the country, shirtless men, tattoos and alcohol.
They said that although tattoos remained taboo in China, moderators in the U.S. could allow small ones, such as little butterflies. In November, Dwayne Johnson, the actor and former wrestler known as The Rock, posted his first video to the app. In January, Tommy Lee, the drummer for the band Motley Crue, joined TikTok. Both have large tattoos.
Finally, people with larger butterfly tattoos on TikTok can participate in the Dogecoin challenge.
Of course, it’s easy to laugh at some of the puritanical content guidelines TikTok has established. And others that have since been walked back enforced oppressive beauty standards, reflected class bias, restricted political speech, or otherwise made the app hostile to various groups.
And yet when critics complain that tech executives “don’t care” about all the terrible content posted on their networks — well, this is what caring looks like! Because it was required to by the authoritarian Chinese government, TikTok took content moderation deadly seriously. The result was a stack of policies that are largely offensive to mainstream American sensibilities.
One question here is whether you can take moderation seriously from the start, the way TikTok has, while still allowing a range of expression that doesn’t penalize people for having tattoos. I think you can — I’ve been hearing more lately about some new social products that are trying — but I’m not sure a single company has gotten the balance right so far.
To its credit, TikTok has owned up to its overly draconian approach to the problem. “In its early days, TikTok took very blunt strategies, all in the sake of trying to keep the platform as positive as possible,” Eric Han, the app’s US head of safety, told the Journal. “That was unequivocally the wrong approach.”
For future startups, though, I’d argue it was a useful effort. American startups have had very few role models for businesses that made trust and safety a foundational pillar of their companies, because Section 230 means they don’t have to. But the protections afforded by Section 230 appear to be eroding, and questions of content moderation could be on the verge of becoming existential. For future startups that want to take a more measured approach, TikTok’s frantic tattoo takedowns will make for a useful case study.
TikTok has other problems, though.
When asked in a Fox News interview if the U.S. should be looking at banning TikTok and other Chinese social media apps, Pompeo said: “We are taking this very seriously. We are certainly looking at it.”
“We have worked on this very issue for a long time,” he said.
The Trump administration is “looking at” a lot of things, and many previous insane-sounding proposals have come and gone without ever being enacted. Others, such as President Trump’s Muslim ban, took a few tries — but eventually became law.
The trade war with China is very much real, though, and has already led to the Trump administration banning government use of Huawei and ZTE telecommunications equipment, for fear of espionage. Banning a social network owned by a Chinese company would be an unprecedented step for the United States, but not an unimaginable one. And, given that China bans American social networks from operating there, the move would have a certain turnabout-is-fair-play element to it.
TikTok has made several moves designed to promote the idea that the app is firewalled off from ByteDance proper and will not share user data with the Chinese government. (The company says it never has and never will, though security experts remain skeptical ByteDance could resist a serious challenge from the Chinese Communist Party.) TikTok is registered in the Cayman Islands, for example. And after Hong Kong passed a new national security law giving vast new surveillance powers to the Chinese Communist Party, TikTok led all social networks in pulling the app from Hong Kong.
But the regulatory pressure is piling up anyway. The Federal Trade Commission is reportedly investigating whether the company violated a 2019 consent decree meant to protect children’s privacy. And threats of a US ban, along with a Facebook-centered advertiser boycott in July that led some companies to pause advertising on all social platforms, has contributed to a rocky launch of the company’s new self-serve ad platform.
Meanwhile, India actually did ban the app, along with 58 others, on charges that they “engaged in activities … prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India.” (It came amid a border skirmish with China in which 20 Indian soldiers were killed.) In April, 30 percent of TikTok downloads came from India, according to Sensor Tower, and so the blow to ByteDance landed particularly hard. Facebook, never one to waste a crisis, released its TikTok clone Reels in the company this week.
On one hand, TikTok’s cultural dominance is still ascendant. Kids are spending 80 minutes a day using the app, and entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles are seemingly being taken over by “collab houses.” And ByteDance has proven to be surprisingly nimble in navigating the regulatory challenges it has faced so far.
But it’s now clear that the company’s success has also made it a target. On one side there is an erratic, xenophobic American administration that relishes punitive bans; on the other is a brutal authoritarian regime. TikTok has been adept at navigating between those two superpowers to date — but I can’t be alone in wondering whether that can last forever.
Coming tomorrow: How to think about the Facebook civil rights audit.

The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔽 Trending down: Digital ad platforms run by Google, Amazon, and other tech companies will funnel at least $25 million into websites spreading misinformation about Covid-19 this year. A research group called the Global Disinformation Index published a study this week that include these findings. (Maya Tribbitt / Bloomberg)
Facebook hasn’t done enough to fight discrimination on its platform, according to a tough new independent audit of the company’s policies and practices. The company also made some decisions that were “significant setbacks for civil rights,” the report finds. Here’s Mike Isaac from the New York Times:
In a 100-page prepublication report, which was obtained by The New York Times, the social network was repeatedly faulted for not having the infrastructure for handling civil rights and for prioritizing free expression on its platform over nondiscrimination. In some decisions, Facebook did not seek civil rights expertise, the auditors said, potentially setting a “terrible” precedent that could affect the November general election and other speech issues.
“Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” wrote the auditors, Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, who are civil rights experts and lawyers. They said they had “vigorously advocated for more and would have liked to see the company go further to address civil rights concerns in a host of areas.”
Jim Steyer, the lawyer who who helped set up the ad boycott against Facebook, says the company could easily do a better job of cleaning up hate speech on the platform. “Don’t tell me they can’t figure that out,” he said. “They’re a trillion-dollar company. If they really wanted to, they could completely clean up that platform.” (Facebook’s market cap is $693 billion, not a trillion.) (Andrew Anthony / The Guardian)
Should climate groups join the Facebook ad boycott? Some already have — including several chapters of Greenpeace International — but others see using the platform as a necessary evil of advocacy. (Emily Atkin / Heated)
The Facebook Oversight Board announced it won’t be operational until “late fall”. That sure sounds like it will be after the US presidential election. In May, the board said it would start reviewing cases “in the coming months.” (Sam Shead / CNBC)
Many government agencies, including the Department of Defense, have secured deals with Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, according to new research from the technology accountability nonprofit Tech Inquiry. That’s despite mounting employee protests of some of the deals. Many of the contracts are routed through subcontractors, making them difficult to find. (April Glaser / NBC)
The CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook will appear before a US House of Representatives panel on July 27th. In a statement, the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee said the hearing is part of its probe into the companies. Can’t wait! (Reuters)
One bill that’s seeking to curb Section 230 protections, the EARN IT Act, cannot be fixed through amendments, this piece argues. If passed, even in an amended form, the bill would still pose a serious threat to online freedoms, especially freedom of speech. (Riana Pfefferkorn / The Center for Internet and Society)
Conservative sites like Newsmax and Washington Examiner have published Middle East hot takes from “experts” who are actually fake personas pushing propaganda. A network of at least 19 of these personas have appeared in more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications. (Adam Rawnsley / Daily Beast)
The Seattle City Council voted to approve a tax on the highest salaries at companies in the city with annual payroll expenses of $7 million or higher. The tax will initially fund coronavirus relief and eventually go toward affordable housing and homelessness. (Monica Nickelsburg / GeekWire)
Twitter seems to be working on a subscription platform for its social networking service. A new job listing reveals that Twitter has a new internal team, codenamed “Gryphon,” that is “building a subscription platform.” Here’s Tom Warren at The Verge:
The job posting notes potential Twitter subscriptions would be “a first” for the company, but it’s not clear exactly how Twitter plans to implement a subscription service. Twitter generates the vast majority of its revenue through ad sales and data licensing currently, and a subscription service could potentially provide exclusive content in return for a monthly fee.
Twitter has previously investigated offering subscriptions as a paid service for power users. The company ran a survey a few years ago to assess whether Twitter users would pay for new analytics, breaking news alerts, or information about what an account’s followers are tweeting about.
Nearly 70,000 startup employees have lost their jobs since March. Companies in the transportation and travel sectors were among the hardest hit. (Angus Loten / The Wall Street Journal)
Instagram started the official rollout of its pinned comment feature, which it first began testing in May. The feature lets any user pin three comments on a post to the top of a thread, to give them more control over the tone. (Nick Statt / The Verge)
Tinder introduced its video call feature today. Face to Face, as the company calls it, is rolling out as a test in 13 countries, including in the US in Virginia, Illinois, Georgia, and Colorado, as well as in Australia, Brazil, and France. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Here’s how Facebook’s org chart is changing with the return of Chris Cox. Four of Zuckerberg’s recent direct reports — the heads of Instagram, Facebook, Messenger and WhatsApp — now report to Cox. (Alex Heath / The Information)
Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, one of the biggest names in streaming, is heading to YouTube. The move comes after the surprise closure of Microsoft’s Mixer, though it’s not clear whether a long-term deal has yet been struck. (Andrew Webster / The Verge)
Things to Do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Check out 33 powerful Black Lives Matter murals. A beautiful feature from Amelia Holowaty Krales and Vjeran Pavic.
Turn off the most annoying Signal notification. Never again get a push when a new contact joins.
Watch Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus play “Dammit” on The Last Of Us: Part II’s in-game guitar. He forgets the lyrics to his own song, but other than that it’s pretty fun.
Those good tweets
Mark As Unread🇯🇲🇬🇾
Michaela Coel's cheekbones are the only structure this country has rn
New Jersey
WTF = wear that facemask
IMO = indoors mask on
WYM = where’s your mask
CTFU = cover that face up
LMAO = leaving mask always on
DM = dope mask
SMH = superb mask habit
BDSM = bring dad some masks
TYVM = that’s your valiant mask
TMI = that mask is
Talk to us
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