TikTok has reversed a ban and apologized to an American teenager whose account was locked after she posted a video criticizing the Chinese government over its treatment of Uighur Muslims, the New York Times reports. TikTok says it is conducting a review into its moderation policies and processes, and plans to publish its first transparency report in the coming months.
In a blog post, the company claims that 17-year old Feroza Aziz’s account was restricted because she used a previous account (@getmefamousplzsir) to post a comedic video involving a picture of Osama bin Laden. This account was banned because of TikTok’s policies against imagery relating to terrorist figures. Then, just over a week later, the company says it banned 2,406 devices associated with banned accounts. Since Aziz’s phone was still associated with this old account, TikTok claims it also inadvertently impacted her new account (@getmefamouspartthree), which she had used to post a viral video criticizing the treatment of Muslims in China.
TikTok also blames a “human moderation error” which saw Aziz’s video removed from the platform yesterday for 50 minutes. Prior to that point, Aziz’s video had still been visible on the platform where it’s been viewed 1.7 million times, even though she was locked out of the account that had posted it.
The incident has intensified concerns over TikTok-owner ByteDance’s subservience to Chinese authorities. Earlier this month, the US government opened an investigation into those ties prompted by data privacy concerns and fears that TikTok is censoring content that is critical of the Chinese government. TikTok has denied these allegations, saying “We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period.”
After her account was unblocked, Aziz took to Twitter to express skepticism at TikTok’s account of the events leading to her account being locked. “Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No.” she tweeted.
In response to the incident, TikTok has promised to review both its moderation processes and policies, and that it may make exceptions for satirical content (which could have prevented Aziz’s video featuring Osama bin Laden from being removed). It says it plans to release a transparency report, as well as a more in-depth version of its Community Guidelines in the next two months.
After months of speculation about TikTok censorship, banning a user shortly after expressing criticism of the Chinese government is at best a huge unforced error. TikTok may have provided an explanation for its actions, but errors like these aren’t helping the public’s perception of the company.