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TikTok faces more accusations of Chinese censorship

The Beijing-owned video sharing platform has been hit with more censorship allegations after a teen was banned for discussing China’s treatment of Muslims.

TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform out there, having surpassed more than one billion downloads worldwide and rivalled only by Snapchat when it comes to quick video sharing amongst Gen Zers. It’s also owned by the Chinese internet company ByteDance.

Multiple investigations as to how the app is deliberately used to push pro-China agendas and foreign policy aims have surfaced throughout the last year. Publications such as The Guardian and the Washington Post have exposed numerous algorithmic tactics adopted by TikTok that keep certain content out of our newsfeeds, particularly anything regarding the ongoing situation in Hong Kong.

This discussion of propaganda surrounding TikTok has been bubbling for over a year. Now, as the company decides to ban a US teen for discussing China’s appalling treatment of Muslims, the claims and criticisms have returned to the forefront of the zeitgeist – just as TikTok tries to distance itself from its Beijing origins.

Why was Feroza Aziz banned from TikTok?

Feroza is a seventeen-year-old from Florida who deliberately sandwiched her message about China’s treatment of Muslims in between clips of a make-up tutorial in order to bypass censorship rules. You can watch the video below to see for yourself.

After her post went viral, Feroza was promptly banned from TikTok for a full month.

TikTok claimed that her phone was blocked due to previous posts that violated its policies on terrorism-related imagery. She used a portrait of Osama bin Laden in a video that joked about other people’s perceptions of the types of men she would stereotypically be interested in as a Muslim. Her new video was also temporarily removed, though TikTok insists this was due to human error.

The company has since apologised to Feroza and reinstated her account, though she remains adamant that her ban was a result of her direct criticism of China. She tweeted her opinion and rejected the official explanation from TikTok. ‘Do I believe they took it away because of an unrelated satirical video? No.’

Feroza’s video refers to an ongoing crisis in China concerning the country’s treatment of Muslims. Over 1 million religious minorities are now in Xinjiang’s modern-day concentration camps that reportedly torture, sexually abuse, and indoctrinate prisoners. Continued reports have tricked out from Beijing over the last year, yet it remains a largely untouched topic in mainstream news. Feroza’s aim was to spread awareness about this issue – a feat that’s largely been successful.

What has TikTok been doing to distance itself from Beijing? 

This story has arrived just as TikTok attempts to distance itself from its heavy association with Chinese ownership and its Beijing-based parent company. The platform has already been fined $5.7 million by the FTC this year over storing personal data of children without parental consent, and investigations by US officials are currently underway into ByteDance’s $1 billion acquisition of in 2017.

TikTok is adamant that it hasn’t got a biased agenda. It claims that US-based user data is stored only in the US and that the Chinese government does not have access to it. TikTok pushes that it doesn’t even run in China, and that its parent company doesn’t have any access to Western user data.

But it’s the lack of transparency over incidents such as Feroza’s banning that flags up concerns. TikTok was not clear as to why she was removed from the platform and the circumstances surrounding it look shady at best. If it wants to instil trust in its users – of which it has a huge, huge amount – then it needs to be more upfront about how it restricts and regulates content.

Other platforms also suffer from this clumsy communications with consumers. YouTube and Facebook in particular have caused confusion and frustration over the years with their unclear use of data and changes to the platform.

TikTok follows similar lines, but comes under more intense fire due to its Chinese origins. That, and it seems to be removing and stripping content out of ‘human error’ that is conveniently critical of Chinese policies. Obviously questions are going to be raised, and while TikTok is now trying to make clear it’s not out to get us all, it probably should have done it sooner.

I doubt any of this will slow down TikTok’s takeover of all things video and social, though. Never underestimate the power of a viral meme.