According to leaked policies obtained by The Intercept, TikTok told its moderators to suppress videos made by users who were deemed poor, ugly, disabled, or obese because this would help attract new users to the social platform. Originally, moderation policies were written in Chinese and then translated into English.
Employees were given the instructions as to how to moderate content in internal memos that also contained instructions about censoring certain political speech in live videos, including “controversial” content that could harm national honor.
To make a decision about whether to promote users’ videos or not, moderators should have looked for such characteristics as “ugly facial looks,” “have obvious beer belly,” “chubby,” “senior people with too many wrinkles,” “facial deformities,” “lack of front teeth,” “obvious facial scars” etc.
Apart from users’ appearance and physical traits, employees also should have paid attention to the environment the videos were shot in. "If the character's appearance or the shooting environment is not good, the video will be much less attractive, not worthy to be recommended to new users," the policy stated. If the content was created in “slums, rural fields, dilapidated housing,” “construction sites” or in places with cracked walls in the background, it should not have been promoted either.
The moderators were not instructed to remove such content from the video-sharing social networking service immediately; however, they were told not to promote videos on the “For You” page that, in fact, is the main feed where videos are shown to millions of users.
A spokesperson for ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns Tiktok, said that published policies the policies aimed at not promoting content made by “unattractive” and disabled people “represented an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying” and were never implemented in the market of the USA and that they are no longer being used anywhere.
However, some sources confirmed that they were in use at least until the end of 2019, while the policy regarding political speech was put in place last year.
Another obtained document with policies was concerned with the platform’s live-streaming feature that prohibited “defamation towards civil servants, political or religious leaders" and towards "the families of related leaders." Users who would produce such content were suspended for a day. Anyone who was found to be "endangering national security" or "national honor and interests" would also be banned.
This isn’t the first time TikTok is exercising strong censorship in its community that is raising serious concerns. For instance, last November, it became known that the company’s moderators were told to censor content related to transgender users, Tiananmen Square, and Tibetan independence.