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TikTok’s moderation guidelines penalized political criticism and ‘controversial topics’

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TikTok Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

TikTok creator ByteDance reportedly told moderators to crack down on videos that mention Tiananmen Square, criticize political systems, or promote controversial groups like Falun Gong, among a host of other restrictions. The Guardian obtained leaked documents outlining moderation rules for the popular social video app. The Beijing-based ByteDance says the rules were retired in May, but they could still inflame concerns about TikTok exporting the Chinese government’s censorship policies worldwide.

The Guardian says TikTok moderators were told to flag content based on very general rules that purposely covered specific Chinese censorship concerns, like criticizing government policies. Some sections mentioned specific forbidden topics, including the Tiananmen Square protests and the Tibetan or Taiwanese independence movements.

Violating most of these rules would get a post marked as “visible to self,” which left it online but limited its reach on TikTok’s feeds. Taken together, the rules constitute a blanket policy of limiting posts about nearly any controversial political topic. A few violations could result in outright removal or a ban, however, including promotions of Falun Gong.

While The Guardian describes these rules as “covering China,” editor Alex Hern clarified on Twitter that they were applied worldwide. ByteDance doesn’t offer TikTok itself in mainland China; it runs a similar app known as Douyin.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post suggested that TikTok might be censoring videos of protests in Hong Kong, but ByteDance claims that the leaked documents don’t reflect TikTok’s current policies. “In TikTok’s early days we took a blunt approach to minimizing conflict on the platform,” a spokesperson told The Guardian. This included penalizing “content that promoted conflict, such as between religious sects or ethnic groups.”

Since the app has become popular globally, the spokesperson said TikTok has switched to “localized approaches, including local moderators, local content and moderation policies, local refinement of global policies, and more.” It previously gave a similar statement to the Post.

The Post noted that TikTok’s policies were highly opaque, and ByteDance’s statement to The Guardian acknowledges that it should “be more transparent in communicating the policies that we develop and enforce to maintain a safe and positive app environment.” It did not describe how it might improve transparency in the future.

While ByteDance has faced moderation controversies before, they’ve been largely based around under-moderation. TikTok was briefly banned in India over claims that users were spreading pornographic content. But American companies like Facebook have claimed that limiting their power would enable the rise of Chinese rivals that “do not share the values that we have,” including commitments to allowing political dissent.

Update 12:25PM: Added comment from The Guardian.