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Inside TikTok: A Cultural Clash in Which US Censorship Views Have Often Rejected by Chinese Chiefs

Following these rules often cause clashes with the organization, former American employees of the company were told by The Washington Post. US workers accustomed to unrestricted Internet expression are clamoring for video restraint commands that Beijing-based teams find subversive or controversial, including heavy kisses, heated debates, and the kinds of political discussions widely watched online.

TikTok says the US operation does not censor political content or take instructions from its parent company, Chinese technology giant ByteDance. Business executives praise the app as a platform free of controversial content that has characterized its online competitors, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. ByteDance said there are no moderators for the US-based TikTok platform that are not based in China.

But former US officials have said that Beijing-based moderators have the latest conversation on whether the approved videos have been approved. Former officials said their attempts to persuade Chinese teams not to block or sanction certain videos were routinely ignored beyond caution about Chinese government restrictions and previous penalties for other ByteDance applications.

Beijing's potential impact on United States enforcement has led the Foreign Ministry's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review the deal that put the forerunner of TikTok, Musical.ly, under the control of ByteDance. Lawmakers have called on US officials to investigate what they called "a potential counterintelligence threat that we cannot ignore."

Calling a congressional hearing Tuesday ̵

1; a session where TikTok officials declined to testify – Sen. Josh Howley (R-Mo.) Told the company about its ties to China and refused to answer key questions on the Capitol Hill.

'TikTok claims not to take direction from China. They say they do not censor. "But that is not what former TikTok employees say," Howley said, referring to The Post's report.

Top TikTok executives declined to be interviewed for this article. In written answers to questions, company executives acknowledged early stumbling blocks and made recent efforts earlier this year to increase US hiring, update content moderation rules, and strengthen the independence of the US team from its Chinese owners.

"TikTok is growing rapidly, as if Facebook, I nstagram, Twitter and Snapchat have been growing in their early years, "said Vanessa Papas, General Manager of the US company." And like these platforms, growth is a challenge in ensuring that our policies and practices continue. "

a short video has become a global phenomenon, capturing young American audiences from the storm, mixing stupid jokes, stunts and personal stories at a powerhouse, downloaded more than 1.3 billion times worldwide.

The company drew little official attention in Washington as it floated to the top of US app stores, rarely a spot on the Internet dominated by light entertainment rather than bitter political discussion.

But former employees who worked at the company's US offices until this spring said they were instructed to follow rules set by managers at Beijing's ByteDance headquarters, such as demoting and removing content related to social and political topics, including censored by the Chinese government. The mail talks to six departed workers who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

"They want to be a global company and by their number, they are a success," said a former ByteDance manager who left this year. "But the purse is still in China: money always comes from there, and decisions come from it."

Pappas, a former YouTube employee who joined the company earlier this year, said in a statement that the decisions for which videos for promotion or removal "are not directed by any foreign government, including the Chinese government."

From the experience of ex-employees with strict rules set out in Beijing, Papas said: "Initially, we took a 'one-size-fits-all' approach and I quickly realized that it wasn't can work. "

The California-based team now manages the US market, she added, "and the company understands that they can best do it without executives 10,000 miles away to get involved in their decisions."

The tension inside in ByteDance, and the circumstances surrounding its rise, highlight the growing challenge for the US Internet as Chinese tech giants compete to expand and compete more directly with social media companies in the West. Silicon Valley admin in investor financing, worker talent and viewers, they also compete more finely and deeply over ideals: namely the value of political expression and free speech online.

Concerns about TikTok are exacerbated by the fact that far less transparent than its Silicon Valley peers, the company has long been silent on its policies, providing little detail about how the app presents an endless buffet of visual candy – and where the company draws content line that it considers inappropriate.

TikTok does not provide data about the videos it has removed from the app and it does not share any details about artificial intelligence tools that determine what viewers see. This secrecy has also contributed to the avoidance of the company by international organizations that can serve as key forums to oversee censorship, harmful content and other digital ailments.

Taking control of its privacy practices, TikTok retained consultants with the cybersecurity firm in July. Special tip for analyzing application source code and storage practices. Doug Bruce, vice president of the company, said on Monday that his team had identified some "vulnerable vulnerabilities" but there was "no indication" that the Chinese government had access to TikTok users' data. Brush said ByteDance is committed to paying the firm an undisclosed amount of consulting fees and that the more complete report on the consultants' findings is not yet ready for review.

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former chief security officer at Facebook, said he had "legitimate concerns" about the potential for censorship and surveillance of TikTok users, especially as the app has grown significantly among young users.

The company "operates under a regime of political censorship", it "the Chinese government has no problem telling [its companies] where it should go into political debate."

ByteDance executives said that TikTok stores all US user data in Virginia and Singapore. But Stamos said where the data is stored is "almost irrelevant": "The leverage the government has over people who have access to that data is important."

ByteDance bought the popular karaoke app Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it with his own service under the name TikTok last year. Led by Zhang Yimin, one of the richest people in China, ByteDance runs a stable news and entertainment program around the world, including the popular US news aggregation app TopBuzz. ByteDance is worth about $ 75 billion, making it more valuable than tech companies Uber and Snapchat combined.

TikTok has been downloaded more than 120 million times in the United States and regularly outperforms its top competitors, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, in iPhone and Google app stores, according to research firm Sensor Tower. Research firm Ghost Data, which analyzed millions of accounts for The Post, found that TikTok is quickly becoming a major competitor to Instagram: It seems that users with the following thousands of people are viewing and interacting with content more than similar Instagram users, and TikTok is becoming competitive even among the influence set. This was one of the many factors that led Andrea Stropa and his fellow researchers to write that "it is too early to simply dismiss TikTok as a (a) passing fad."

To cope with the exploding demand in the United States, the company hired a new head of moderation in the US in April and in recent months began hiring a blitz, chasing dozens of new engineers, strategists and executives for its offices in New York, Los Angeles and Palo Alto, California.

ByteDance stated that the TikTok organization in the US is independent of China. But Papas told The Post that her boss, Musical.ly co-founder Alex Zhu, reports directly to Yiming, founder of ByteDance. In a statement, Papas said, "Alex is adamant that I and my team have a great deal of autonomy and full autonomy in decisions such as content moderation."

The company also has staff in Washington. Last month, TikTok announced it would retain two former members of Congress as part of a broader effort to review its content-moderating policies and prevent political controversy. ByteDance also registered its first federal lobbyists earlier this year.

But TikTok has sometimes found itself isolated from its Silicon Valley counterparts by Facebook, Google and Twitter, who have come together in an effort to tackle the toughest issues on their platforms.

"Their growth was, I think, even unexpected and enormous for them," says Stephen Balkam, leader of the Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit organization that helps companies improve their practices, to which TikTok has joined only recently. For years, he said, FOSI and other groups have been trying to reach Musical.ly to no avail. "I think they were competing with the amount of published stuff and how to handle it," he said.

Unlike the three tech giants, for example, TikTok and ByteDance are not part of an international effort to combat extremism online. The Global Internet Anti-Terrorism Forum (GIFCT) has helped social media companies identify violent videos around major international incidents and stop their distribution online in real time.

TikTok stated that it had met with GIFCT leaders. But the company did not receive membership because it did not meet the group criteria, which required companies to meet certain human rights conditions and to publish transparency reports, according to a source familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss their private proceedings . In practice, this means that TikTok cannot easily access real-time information about extremist content that will turn into a virus.

Not even ByteDance and TikTok are participants in the Global Network Initiative – a collection of companies that have pledged to oppose illegal or overly broad requests from governments for access to user data, the group confirmed. The GNI checks its members annually, including Facebook and Google, to ensure that they keep their promises. There is no similar oversight of TikTok and there are concerns that the Chinese government may gain access to US consumer data, despite the company's insistence otherwise.

Greg Nojim, a senior adviser at the Center for Democracy and Technology and a member of the BNG's Governing Council, said ByteDance's decision not to participate "implies a lack of accountability for behavior and monitoring that could be triggered by government requests. "

Unlike its competitors in Western social media, TikTok is a striking light on political and social topics that many of the world comment on – including, as some researchers told The Post in September, a lack of content, related to the protests in Hong Kong that China has been fiercely undermined. As the company shifted its moderation rules and gained new prominence, some notable exceptions came up: For example, videos with the hashtag # trump2020 have more than 200 million views.

A set of internal company guidelines published by the Guardian newspaper in September instructed TikTok moderators to ban videos and topics in accordance with Chinese government censorship policies, including "distortion" of historical events such as "Tiananmen Square Incidents" ; "Criticism / attack" on the policies or social rules of the countries, including the "system of socialism"; and discussing "highly contradictory topics" that, according to the rules, include the independence of Tibet and Taiwan.

ByteDance then said that the rules are a relic from the early days of TikTok, when the company took a "blunt approach" to minimize conflict, and that they were retired in May after the application was downloaded more than 100 million times in the United States . The company said it would "further increase transparency" regarding its new policies, but repeatedly refused to share them.

Former employees who spoke with The Post stated that they were fighting cultural conflicts, shifting direction and inconsistencies in the way TikTok handled content for American audiences. Former workers said they often feel subordinate to their Chinese managers and colleagues, who follow different rules for acceptable speech and often refuse to explain why they have blocked certain videos or ideas.

Some former employees say the company is strictly content rules were created to help protect the platform from the anger and negativity seen elsewhere on the network. According to them, the company wants to keep it as a haven in a bright and positive video where political disputes were banned and social discussions were fun and tame.

But some said they were concerned after being told to report videos deemed potentially cultural. problematic, even if the content is generally acceptable in the United States. Videos involving heavy kissing or more immersive dance moves, for example, had to be labeled "vulgar" and blocked by younger viewers, some former moderators said. And political content – even if it included constructive discussion and did not touch on topics related to China – was also limited if it contained inflammatory talk or controversy.

Papas said in a statement that her team was "fully committed to ensuring our policies are safe for everyone in our large and diverse customer base. "

Rules issued by Beijing-based teams are often a source of confusion at US offices, former officials said. For example, moderators have been told to restrict any videos that show a person spraying normally due to health concerns, but to allow "vaping tricks" that feed the viral meme.

Former moderators have said flag videos have been deleted directly or finely blocked from showing in streams through which most videos are viewed and shared. This latter method, according to moderators, has largely prevented video creators from even knowing that the video was considered unacceptable.

Similar concerns about the influence of Chinese executives played in ByteDance's TopBuzz news aggregation application, which a former US company official said blocked any critical discussion about China. They were also instructed to block or remove publications, including obscene words, discussing legal marijuana, and Georgia artwork by Keefe whose colorful paintings are known in comparison to female genitals.

Many of the videos that ByteDance moderators consider objectionable say employees stay on other video sites, such as YouTube, including videos of a comedian known as "crazed crazies." Some videos discussing social or political issues related to black Americans have also been flagged and demoted as "urban content," said a TopBuzz official who left the company earlier this year.

"This is indicative of the growing phenomenon of Chinese technology companies becoming global," says Elsa B. Kania, a senior fellow and researcher at China's Center for a New American Security, Washington Brain Trust. „От всички свои международни стремежи се очаква да се придържат към изискванията на Комунистическата партия, включително искания за цензура.“

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