Beware TikTok, the hugely popular app influenced by Beijing

Tik Tok logo on smartphone

The social media app Tik Tok is one of the most popular in the world. Despite only being launched in 2017, it has already been downloaded more than 1 billion times around the world and it is currently the most popular app for American smartphone users between the ages of 18-25.

However, Tik Tok is far from the fun and family-friendly app it likes to portray itself as. As the UK’s Guardian newspaper has revealed, Tik Tok is actually being used as a tool by the Communist regime in China to advance their foreign policy objectives.

These include oppressing the people of Tibet, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, a holocaust of Uyghur Muslims in East Turkestan, and the censorship of their own widespread human rights violations.

Tik Tok guidelines leaked

The revelations about Tik Tok and the company behind the app, ByteDance, come in guidelines leaked to the newspaper. They follow a report in the Washington Post earlier this month which noted that while the people of Hong Kong continue to protest for their rights, a search of Tik Tok reveals almost no mention of the protests.

As the leaked guidelines reveal, ByteDance is not shy about censoring content from Tik Tok. There are two different censorship categories they use. The first type is considered a violation of their terms and conditions and will see content deleted completely. It can also lead to users being banned from the service.

There is also a category of lesser infringements which is marked as “visible to self”. This appears to mean that the content remains on a user’s profile but no other user is able to view it.

This category is particularly controversial as it effectively means that users cannot know whether something they post on Tik Tok has actually been published more widely or not. In other words, Tik Tok is able to mask their censorship from their own users.

The rules on China-related content  

Guidelines on how Tik Tok handles content related to Communist China are mostly found in the section on ‘hate speech and religion’ which is quite apt for a regime that permits no freedom of speech and suppresses most religions.

The Guardian specifically notes in their coverage that all rules relating to China are written in such a way as to make them seem all-purpose rather than specific rules on China-related content.

For example, Tik Tok guidelines specifically prohibit “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc.”. The use of the term socialist system makes it obvious that this rule is designed to prohibit criticism of the Communist regime in China.

Other rules make specific references to issues that are particularly sensitive to Communist China. One rule bans any content that makes reference to “highly controversial topics, such as separatism, religion sects conflicts, conflicts between ethnic groups. It goes on to list a number of examples, but most notably Taiwan and Tibet.

The rule that prohibits content referencing the “demonisation or distortion of local or other countries’ history” makes a specific reference to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Neither Tibetan or Taiwanese independence or the Tiananmen Square Massacre are in any way controversial outside Communist China.

Posts relating to Falun Gong are also specifically marked as being in “violation”. Falun Gong is a peaceful religious practice which has been brutally suppressed in Communist China with multiple accusations of the torture and murder of practitioners and even the harvesting of their organs.

ByteDance denial

The company behind Tik Tok, ByteDance has strongly denied the Guardian’s claims. It is worth noting however that they are headquartered in Beijing and, under Chinese law, are duty-bound to offer any requested assistance to the Communist regime in advancing their political objectives.

ByteDance claims that the document the Guardian refers to is out of date and their violations policy is now localised. This, however, doesn’t explain the evidence referenced by the Washington Post and others about the absence in the US of content on Hong Kong and other topics sensitive to Beijing.

Some observers have also questioned how ByteDance obtained the funds to purchase the popular US app musical.ly for a reported US$1 billion and has also spent an estimated US$1 billion on Facebook adverts for Tik Tok.

It is not unknown for the Communist regime in China to bankroll local companies if they are helping them to achieve domestic and foreign policy objectives.

Don't trust Tik Tok

It is quite clear from the Guardian’s article that both Tik Tok and ByteDance are still working closely with the Chinese Communist regime and this should raise a red flag with users, and indeed governments everywhere.

If Tik Tok is willing to censor content, it also begs the question what other Communist Party policies they are willing to adhere to. Are they, for example, carrying our surveillance of users for the regime, as Chinese law also requires them to do if asked?

Until Tik Tok becomes a whole lot more transparent about its behaviour and its links to the Chinese Communist Party, the best advice we can give is to avoid this app at all costs.

David Spencer

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 3 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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