Image Source: Pixababy
The modern world is no stranger to viral social media apps. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and Instagram are all commonly known apps used by millions upon millions of people daily. Tik Tok is the most recent fad, popularized after its merger with Musical.ly back in August of 2018. Before then, the app was exclusive to China under the name Douyin (which it still keeps in China). For the uninformed, Tik Tok lets users create short music and lip-sync videos of 3 to 15 seconds and short looping videos of 3 to 60 seconds, which many have taken as an opportunity to create content similar to what was made with the now-defunct Vine app. People use the app somewhat similarly to Instagram by making short videos to tell jokes and share memes, often using the app’s music and lip-syncing capabilities to their advantage.
What many don’t realize, however, is that Tik Tok is a platform riddled with privacy and censorship issues.
The more prevalent issue, and the one that irks me the most, is Tik Tok’s blatant censorship measures. The most commonly known act of censorship from Tik Tok is no doubt the banning of pro-LGBTQ content. Despite being run independently from Douyin, the app’s moderation is still designed to appeal to local Chinese sensibilities and as such regularly removes any content showing content that could be seen as positive to gay people or gay rights, right down to same-sex couples holding hands (again, this being in countries where same-sex marriage is legal).
Besides this, TikTok moderators were also told to suppress videos from users who appeared too ugly, poor or disabled, from the app’s “For You” feed. This feed is the algorithmic timeline that most watch when they use Tik Tok, and the suppression is done to promote a more visually appealing presentation for the app. Internal documents obtained by The Intercept even advise TikTok moderators to watch for slummy features such as a “crack on the wall” or “old and disreputable decorations”. This gentrification of the app’s content makes it so the feed is most frequently populated by wealthy and objectively good-looking people filming in spotless, luxurious homes.
Lastly, I want to point out that Tik Tok also removes posts that could offend Chinese people or their government, such as any mention of Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the religious practice of Falun Gong. The list of figures that cannot be included in posts includes (among others) Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Kim Jong-un and Shinzo Abe. Famously, Feroza Aziz, an Afghan-American teenager, was banned from posting on the app after she embedded messages in her makeup videos telling people to read up on the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese authorities. Douyin specifically is also suspending users for speaking Cantonese, though the app’s company (Bytedance) claims this is because they don’t have enough Cantonese speakers on staff to support the language on their platform.
I started investigating Tik Tok and writing about it not because I had heard of any of these facts (aside from the anti-LGBTQ measures), but because I frequently felt uneasy when watching Tik Tok videos sent by some of my friends. Some memes were no different from those I’d find on Instagram or Reddit, but I found most of the posts I encountered to be eerie in their presentation, as if the whole thing was a heavily-managed project done by a marketing team in order to get a broad appeal and as many views as possible: backgrounds that were too white and spotless, people whose faces and expressions seemed entirely manufactured, low-effort posts that were simply good-looking people vaguely dancing or singing to a random song, etc. These aspects alone aren’t really harmful on their own, but after knowing a little more about Tik Tok’s policies I can’t help but hate it and revolt at the sight of a shared Tik Tok meme.
Originally Published on www.bandersnatch.ca Vol.49 Issue 14 on April 29th, 2020