A recent report revealing that TikTok suppresses LGBTQ+ content in at least 8 languages is the latest development in a string of censorship controversies TikTok has faced.
As of Sunday, TikTok will vanish from Apple and Google’s U.S. app stores following an executive order signed by Donald Trump which aims to “safeguard the national security of the United States” according to a media release from the U.S. Department of Commerce.
To many, this move is a characteristically brazen and defiantly ignorant measure, the likes of which have become the hallmark of Trump-era authority. Frankly, the press release reeks of that protectionist rhetoric die-hard MAGA stans would swoon over, but is it possible that Trump actually got this one right?
Though the government’s sole reason for banning TikTok is due to its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the threat of foreign surveillance of users through personal data collection, TikTok has a history of selectively censoring content created by marginalised groups, and until now, has never had its operations threatened.
On September 8, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) released a report detailing TikTok’s censorship of LGBTQ+ content; several hashtags containing words such as “gay,” “lesbian” and “transgender” were all included on a list of shadowbanned terms in at least 8 languages including Arabic, Russian, Bosnian and Estonian. Specific examples include “#Gay,” #GayArab,” “#IAmALesbian” and “#Transgender.”
Concerningly, the report found that this censorship of content was not just localised to the countries where the languages are spoken, rather, any user engaging with TikTok in a language that has censored content will find it is suppressed “no matter where they live.” For example, Arabic Americans will find #Gay is censored in Arabic on TikTok, even if they search or post the term whilst in U.S.
The authors of the report contacted TikTok for comment on the list of LGBTQ+ hashtags their research had indicated had been shadowbanned, and while it was acknowledged these terms were censored, “some were partially restricted due to relevant local laws” a TikTok spokesperson said. They further stated that the platform “strongly supports…LGBTQ creators around the world and is proud that LGBTQ content is among the most popular category [sic] on the platform with billions of views.”
Of course, moderating content to comply with local laws is an inevitable side-effect of any social media platform’s global operations, but TikTok has a history of censoring LGBTQ+ content well beyond what local laws mandate they do. Internal policy documents obtained by The Guardian last year detailing TikTok’s operations in Turkey revealed that “promotion of homosexuality” was restricted. More specifically “intimate activities (holding hands, touching kissing) between homosexual lovers” and content “protecting rights of homosexuals (parade, slogan, etc.)” was censored by moderators. Though Turkey does not recognise same-sex marriage and, like other predominantly Muslim countries, observes conservative moral codes that restrict public exhibition, it’s not illegal to be gay in Turkey. So why did TikTok independently decide to stifle content that promotes LGBTQ+ visibility when doing so is not an illegal activity?
In response to the leaked documents, a TikTok spokesperson acknowledged that these procedures had existed, saying: “The referenced guidelines regarding LGBTQ content in Turkey are no longer in use” and the platform had “since made significant progress in establishing a more robust localised approach.” Presumably, rather than acknowledging the diverse range of attitudes towards queer depictions in the region and promoting visibility where the law allowed – TikTok just adopted a blanket approach to censoring content.
Perhaps the most damning evidence of TikTok’s mammoth diversity problem are the leaked 2019 former policy documents obtained by The Intercept and German Digital Rights Group, Netzpolitik detailing the systematic, irrefutable discrimination against queer, disabled, overweight and poor people. The so-called “Ugly Content Policy” instructed TikTok’s human moderators to suppress content containing people with an “abnormal body shape, chubby…obese, or too thin,” dwarfism, “facial deformities” including obvious facial scars, “ugly facial looks” and “senior people with too many wrinkles.” It also blocked content depicting individuals of lower socio-economic status where “the shooting environment is shabby and dilapidated” such as the “slums” and “rural fields” (the policy also specifies that “rural beautiful natural scenery” could be exempted). According to The Intercept, TikTok’s reasoning behind these guidelines was that “undesirable” users threatened to “decrease the short-term new user retention rate.”
Similarly, in 2019 Netzpolitik reported that TikTok moderators were instructed to identify users with “facial disfigurement,” Down’s Syndrome and Autism (because apparently TikTok’s workers are capable of diagnosing individuals on the spectrum based on a 15-second video) and cap the reach of their content. Guidelines instructed moderators to automatically tag these TikToks as “not recommended” in the “For You” algorithm once they reached 6,000 to 10,000 views. This meant they’d only be visible if users found the videos directly through the creators’ homepage. TikTok’s reason? To protect vulnerable users from cyberbullying. Yes, you read that right. In yet another example of the platform’s perfectly executed tone-deaf response to a deeply complex social issue, TikTok decided to punish the victim rather than using its ample social capital to engender positive attitudes towards an underrepresented group in its community.
A TikTok spokesperson admitted to the BBC that the company had handled the situation poorly, stating that the platform “implemented a blunt and temporary policy” and had “long since removed [it] in favour of more nuanced anti-bullying policies.” But it’s hard to overlook TikTok’s repurposed I’m sorry, we’re just learning but we’ll do better next time approach to addressing serious violations of individual expression, censorship and blatantly discriminatory practices. So has the sun set on TikTok at just the right time?
A total ban on TikTok in the U.S. will come into effect on November 12th unless TikTok’s Chinese-based parent company, ByteDance, divests itself from U.S. operations. Though it has been reported that a tentative agreement between Oracle, the U.S. Treasury and ByteDance has been reached, leaving ByteDance with a minority stake and making the establishment of the proposed “TikTok Global” likely, no formal announcement has been made.
Will this change in ownership signal the end of TikTok’s big diversity problem? Or will Trump’s forced sale of the platform herald a slew of rebranded social issues directed towards its former owners such as racism and xenophobia?