Leaked Documents Show TikTok Tried to Suppress ‘Ugly’ Users

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Social video platform TikTok, already embroiled in a political skirmish over potential national security risks related to its Chinese owner, ByteDance, is now taking on a more familiar form of criticism: concerns over its highly opaque content moderation policies.

According to reporting from the Intercept, those policies included provisions to limit the exposure of—or outright ban—undesirable users, including those deemed physically unattractive or financially lacking.

The moderation document leaked to the Intercept notesLeake that attributes including “abnormal body shape,” being “chubby,” “obese,” or “too thin,” missing teeth, the presence of “obvious facial scars,” being an older person with “too many wrinkles,” or having congenital issues like dwarfism or acromegaly could limit the exposure of that content in the “For You” section of the app, an algorithmically generated suggestion engine that can drive enormous numbers of viewers to a video. The presence of these physical traits, as the document (which appears to have been translated rather roughly by TikTok itself) makes these videos “not worthing to be recommended to new users.”


The same document also directs moderators to deprioritize videos shot in “shabby and dilapidated” environments like “slums” or “rural fields,” and in non-obvious cases, housing that is “messy, has cracks on the walls, or contains “old and disreputable decorations.”

These leaks follow similar ones made public last month, which alleged the platform had baked in discrimination not just against the “ugly” and overweight, but against disabled and queer users as well.


Taken at face value, TikTok is using bigotry to game user growth, attempting to manicure the content it surfaces to be maximally aspirational (at least, to what its developers believe to be ideal).

A representative of TikTok told the Intercept these policies are “either no longer in use” or were never put in place at all, and that the purpose of limiting the exposure of physically and economically undesirable users was “an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying.”


TikTok’s moderation policy extends also to the political agenda of its home country’s ruling party. Similar deprioritization or banning can occur if users mention contentious events like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A second document published by the Intercept notes that prohibited behavior on the platform’s livestreaming feature includes filming police activity, “inciting subversion of state power,” and “destruction of national unity.”

Of course, none of this is listed anywhere in the company’s public-facing User Guidelines document.


Read the full story from the Intercept here.