After several frenzied months of investigation over who TikTok is and what it wants with our teens, TikTok has posted new community guidelines that reflect the platform’s “driving philosophy” towards the end of “greater transparency.” That assurance probably won’t satisfy lawmakers who’ve prompted two national security probes into the app’s potential use as a propaganda arm and data funnel for the Communist Party of China. Nor the Navy and Army, which have banned service members from using the app on government-issued phones, calling it a “cyber threat.” Nor the journalists who’ve extensively reported on TikTok’s shady moderation policies which reportedly pander to the ideology of the Chinese government.
From a business standpoint, it does help the viral video network to define itself as it stakes its territory alongside U.S.-led social media rulers.
Distinguishing itself from Facebook, for example, TikTok is taking a hard stance against “misleading information,” which includes:
- Misinformation meant to incite fear, hate, or prejudice
- Misinformation that may cause harm to an individual’s health, such as misleading information about medical treatments
- Hoaxes, phishing attempts, or manipulated content meant to cause harm
- Content that misleads community members about elections or other civic processes
We can only hope this would cover stuff like the past week of Iran-related “ready for the draft like…” memes. We’ve asked TikTok about this, and whether the guidelines will be applied retroactively, and will update the post if we hear back.
The hate speech policy also includes a ban on “content that denies well-documented and violent events have taken place,” unlike Facebook, which provides a platform for Holocaust denial.
And unlike its competitors, it stipulates that there will be no depiction of firearms, period–the only exceptions being “in a fictional setting, as part of a museum’s collection, carried by a police officer, in a military parade, or used in a safe and controlled environment such as a shooting range.” We’ve asked TikTok to clarify whether this would apply more broadly to military service members, who seem to have been early adopters, if the Army’s successful TikTok recruitment campaign is an indication.
Occasionally, the guidelines sound like an all-school assembly, with a ban on all “underage delinquent behavior,” which includes but is not limited to “consumption or use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco”: a kibosh on the vaping memes. Its preexisting no-nudity rule goes without saying, but it expands its specifications to cover animation, with artistic, documentary, scientific, and educational exceptions including for mastectomy scars.
The community guidelines, which emphasize fun and creativity, are far cheerier than the dictatorial stuff the moderation teams have reportedly been seeing. In September 2019, the Guardian reported that TikTok instructed moderators to ban political content displeasing to China, including depictions of Tiananmen Square, Tibetan autonomy, or the Falun Gong, as well as a ban on “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country.” And the Guardian reported that nation-specific guidelines went so far as to ban all LGBTQ-oriented media including “homosexual lovers” and “rights of homosexuals” in Turkey. While TikTok insists that its U.S. content is moderated by a U.S.-based team, moderators reportedly told the Washington Post that Beijing-based censors have the final word. TikTok’s owner ByteDance has reportedly been looking to move its headquarters outside China, and Bloomberg has reported that executives are considering selling a majority stake. TikTok denies considering the sale.
Unfortunately, its effort toward greater transparency is overshadowed this morning by news of multiple major vulnerabilities discovered by the security company Checkpoint. It reports that its cyber threat research teams were easily able to send SMS messages to other users on behalf of TikTok, to break into other TikTok accounts, delete videos, upload unauthorized apps, publish “hidden” videos, and reveal personal information. Dang, TikTok just settled another lawsuit brought by parents alleging that the company exposed their children’s data and personal information. And the discovery certainly doesn’t help TikTok at a time when the US government is particularly concerned about backdoors being left open for the authorities in China.