TikTok parent company complicit in censorship and Xinjiang police propaganda

Popular video app is “a vector for censorship and surveillance”, according to a new report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which found the app’s parent company ByteDance was in police propaganda in .

Key points:

  • ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, said the personal data of users was not shared with Chinese authorities
  • TikTok has faced allegations of “shadow-banning” a stealthier form of censorship to hide topics
  • The viral video app is worth $110 billion and has an audience of 700 million

The ASPI report, released Thursday afternoon, found that the TikTok’s parent company ByteDance “collaborates with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state’s propaganda”.

The report also names Chinese tech giant Huawei which is banned from supplying equipment to Australia’s 5G mobile network due to security concerns works “extensively” in Xinjiang and directly with the Chinese Government’s public security bureaus in the region.

China’s north-west region of Xinjiang has been described as an “open-air prison” where more than a million Uyghurs a Turkic speaking ethnic group and other Muslim minorities have been detained.

China has repeatedly rejected the re-education centres are “concentration camps” and maintains they are “vocational centres” or “boarding schools” that are necessary to prevent the spread of terrorism.

The ASPI report comes on the heels of a leaked cache of highly classified Chinese Government documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and shared with the ABC.

Those documents, dubbed the China Cables, revealed 23 Australian citizens were singled out for deportation or detention.

The leaks also highlighted the scale of mass internment in Xinjiang, where doors are double-locked to prevent escapes and there’s a system of digital surveillance and “arrest by algorithm” designed to instil fear.

Apps aiding ‘propaganda’

The report coincides with ASPI updating its mapping Chinese tech giants project, adding companies including iFlytek, ByteDance (which owns TikTok), SenseTime, CloudWalk, Meiya Pico, and BeiDou to a public database.

TikTok has faced allegations of censorship and “shadow-banning” a stealthier form of censorship where particular topics are down-ranked in the app’s algorithm so they don’t show up in users’ feeds.

The ASPI report echoed United States Congress members’ concerns about “the app’s use of censorship to curate and shape information flows and export CCP media narratives to data privacy and the potential for the app to be used as a tool of surveillance in the service of the Chinese party-state”.

Its parent company, ByteDance, has recently said personal data from users in other countries is not shared with Chinese authorities.

The viral video platform was the subject of controversy in recent days after a US teenager claimed she was blocked for sharing a video encouraging people to research the “holocaust” happening in Xinjiang, masked as a make-up tutorial.

This was initially disputed by TikTok, but they later apologised and admitted the video had been removed for 50 minutes “due to a human moderation error”, stressing the video did not breach community guidelines and “it should not have been removed”.

In a statement to the ABC, a TikTok representative said the company “does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China”.

“We have never been asked by the Chinese Government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period,” the statement said.

“We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese Government; TikTok does not operate in China, nor do we have any intention of doing so in the future.”

The video app also told the ABC it had previously taken a “blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform” during its early days, referring to content which “promotes conflict between religious sects or ethnic groups”.

However, it added that: “The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use.”

“As TikTok started taking off in new markets, we are working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market,” the statement read.

But the ASPI report said the “meteoric growth” of TikTok, which is worth a “jaw-dropping” $110 billion and has an audience of 700 million globally, makes parent company ByteDance “uniquely susceptible to other problems that come with its closeness to the censorship and surveillance
apparatus of the CCP-led state”.

The company inked a “strategic” deal with the Ministry of Public Security’s press and publicity bureau to promote the “influence and credibility” of police departments across China, and video-sharing app Douyin the Chinese version of TikTok accounts were used to disseminate propaganda.

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