Of course, American companies do remove content from social networks, including some political speech, when it violates their guidelines around hate speech, violence, or nudity. For the most part, though, they permit the maximum range of free expression. As businesses that only make money when we are paying attention to them, they are financially incentivized to include as many viewpoints on their platforms as possible, and to treat them all with relative equality. (It turns out that when you do this, partisan posts outperform centrist ones
, and conservative content outperforms liberal content.)
But what if censorship of political speech on an American social network was real? What if you were prohibited from discussing the Trump impeachment, say, or the 2016 election? Well, let’s take a look at how America’s latest social networking sensation — TikTok
, the product of Chinese company ByteDance — has handled politically sensitive content. From Alex Hern’s very good story in The Guardian
, the popular Chinese-owned social network, instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong, according to leaked documents detailing the site’s moderation guidelines.
The documents, revealed by the Guardian for the first time, lay out how ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app.
On the one hand, it’s no surprise that TikTok is censoring political speech. Censorship is a mandate for any Chinese internet company, and ByteDance has had multiple run-ins with the Communist party already. In one case, Chinese regulators ordered its news app Toutiao to shut down for 24 hours after discovering unspecified “inappropriate content.”
In another case, they forced ByteDance to shutter a social app called Neihan Duanzi, which let people share jokes and videos. In the aftermath, the company’s founder apologized profusely — and pledged to hire 4,000 new censors, bringing the total to 10,000
“Our product took the wrong path, and content appeared that was incommensurate with socialist core values,” Bytedance CEO and founder Zhang Yiming wrote on his official WeChat account.
”I am personally responsible for the punishments we have received,” he added.
For its part, TikTok told the Guardian that its story was based on now-outdated guidelines that are no longer enforced:
“The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use. Today we take localised approaches, including local moderators, local content and moderation policies, local refinement of global policies, and more. We also consult with a number of independent local committees and are working to scale this at a global level, including forming an independent committee of leading industry organisations and experts to continually assess these policies.
As it happens, TikTok does have a publicly posted set of guidelines
, which I read for the first time today. Notably absent is any policy on how to handle posts about politics. It remains unclear to me whether applying a more localized set of approaches to content moderation means that American users will be able to post content that Chinese users cannot on their own version of the app. (Maybe they can
?) Here’s what TikTok had to say when I asked:
“We know users gravitate to TikTok because it provides a positive, joyful app experience that fosters their creativity. Fun, entertaining short-form videos are what users overwhelmingly upload and engage with, and that’s what we tend to provide the most support for through things like partnerships or creative filters. While political content is fine, it’s not our focus and it’s not what users are generally looking for.”
As the 2020 election campaign — or, uh, impeachment proceedings — ramp up, I can see that changing in a hurry. If TikTok’s ascent continues, politics will naturally appear there, just as it has everywhere else. With US-China tensions running high, the issue feels quite sensitive. We saw how aggressively our politicians responded to disingenuous complaints of censorship. Imagine what they might do when the censorship is real.