Any business operating in China has to comply with the communist government’s stringent censorship policies. Home-grown TikTok is no exception. It censors any content that threatens the communist regime, which includes topics like democracy, Christianity, Tibet, and LGBT.
“The guidelines divide banned material into two categories: Some content is marked as a “violation,” which sees it deleted from the site entirely and can lead to a user being banned from the service. But lesser infringements are marked as “visible to self,” which leaves the content up, but limits its distribution through TikTok’s algorithmically-curated feed,” according to leaked documents revealed by The Guardian.
Most of the content deemed to be “anti-China” by the government is mentioned in a section titled “hate speech and religion.” Criticizing the Chinese government’s policies or the country’s social system is banned. A similar ban exists when the content involves demonization or distortion of a country’s history. Through this rule, incidents like the Tiananmen Massacre and Cambodian genocide are censored. A general-purpose rule bans any topic like separatism, religious conflicts, and ethnic conflicts from being mentioned. As such, subjects like the conflict between Islamic sects, the Tibetan independence movement, ethnic tensions between blacks and whites, will have to be blocked by TikTok.
Content that contains information about Falun Gong is marked as a “violation,” since Beijing has falsely categorized the practice as “promoting suicide.” The spiritual practice has been clubbed together with the Aum cult of Japan that carried out the infamous attacks on the Tokyo Metro in 1995. TikTok is prohibited from circulating content that contains information about 20 foreign leaders and “sensitive figures.” Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump is on the list. Other banned leaders include Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even Mahatma Gandhi.
The developer of TikTok, ByteDance, claims that the guidelines revealed by The Guardian were phased out in May. “As TikTok started taking off in new markets, we recognized that this was not the correct approach, and began working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market. As we’ve grown, we’ve implemented this localized approach across everything from product, to the team, to policy development,” the company said to the BBC.
The Indian ban
In April, TikTok was banned in India for a brief period due to a court order as it was argued that the app was putting children in danger of sexual content and predators. “It is said that TikTok app is mostly played by teenagers and young people and it has proved to be an addictive one… By becoming addicted to TikTok app, and similar apps or cyber games, the future of the youngsters and mindset of the children are spoiled,” the court stated (Scroll). As a result, TikTok removed 6 million videos deemed violating content guidelines.
The ban was eventually revoked and the app is currently accessible in the Indian market. TikTok has over 120 million active monthly users in India. Between December 2017 -2018, India accounted for 27 percent of the app’s total installs. In the first quarter of 2019, the app received 88 million new users just from India. Worldwide, TikTok boasts of half a billion active users, with 60 percent from China. In addition to TikTok, ByteDance also owns the Musical.ly app.