ByteDance, the parent company of social media platform TikTok that’s based in China, employs personnel who work in the Communist country and use a system for moderation that includes lists of words that are designed to either restrict or identify content that’s related to broad ranges of topics.
Forbes acquired internal records from ByteDance that showed that some of the posts that were subject to this system were related to the Chinese Uyghurs – a persecuted group of people in China – as well as former President Donald Trump.
According to the documents, ByteDance keeps a list of content that’s related to the government in China, to the Uyghurs, to Trump, to YouTube – a major competitor of TikTok – and to trade relations between the United States and China. Sometimes, the company even suppresses this content so that users on the site aren’t able to see it.
Company officials told Forbes that they haven’t ever applied these lists to content on the platform. That’s despite the fact that more than 50 of the different lists contain the phrase “TikTok” in the title.
The company tried to separate TikTok and its Chinese “sister” company, which is called Douyin. It’s essentially the Chinese version of TikTok that ByteDance also owns.
Jamie Favazza, who’s a spokesperson for TikTok, said that the two apps are quite different from each other. She said that each platform has a separate keyword build-out and lists that are overseen by different teams.
Favazza said these systems split from each other back in 2019, with TikTok’s platform being independent ever since that time.
In what sounded like an attempt to deflect attention from the internal documents, and to discredit Forbes, Favazza also said that the documents Forbes obtained are likely either incomplete or outdated. She further said she couldn’t speculate why any of the titles of the lists would have “U.S” or “TikTok” as part of the names.
A separate spokesperson for ByteDance, Jennifer Banks, recently spoke with the Daily Caller News Foundation and said:
“To be clear, there are separate keyword moderation tools. The tool that moderates TikTok is completely separate from those responsible for the products available in mainland China.”
Despite these claims, many tech experts said to Forbes that it would be next to impossible for ByteDance to ensure the strict settings that are in place at Douyin don’t work at all on TikTok.
The law in China requires all businesses to give data to the communist government there if they request it. That means that if ByteDance were to be asked to turn over information contained in the app, they would be required by law to do so – regardless of where the data in question originated.
Former President Donald Trump tried to get TikTok banned in the U.S. before he left office, but that didn’t happen. Now, current President Joe Biden has called for TikTok to become a separate entity from ByteDance altogether – and if they don’t, then they could face a full-out ban in the U.S.