Bytedance adds fuel to India’s ethnic and religious fires

In what is becoming an unfortunately common occurrence, yet another Bytedance app is receiving criticism for its problematic content overseas.

The platform is Helo, the Beijing-based super-unicorn’s news app for Indian regional languages. A recent investigation by the Hindustan Times revealed that Helo, as well as its Xiaomi-backed, India-based competitor ShareChat, are “rife with misinformation and political propaganda.”

The article cited a number of Helo posts, including one saying that the BBC had declared the prominent Indian National Congress the “fourth most corrupt political party in the world.” (It hadn’t.) Another falsely claimed a well-known politician in the state of Rajasthan had suggested that India should help neighboring rival Pakistan clear its debt rather than invest in the country’s newly-constructed Statue of Unity monument. (He didn’t.) At the time of writing, neither had been removed from the Helo platform.

According to the Hindustan Times, fake news on both Helo and ShareChat tended to involve false quotes or graphic images designed to provoke outrage along religious lines, manipulating the country’s longstanding tensions between its Hindu and Muslim populations. Many either referenced or involved images of violent acts.

Updated: Toutiao’s overseas platform is delivering fake news, but its problems run much deeper than that

I am unable to read Indian languages, so I enlisted the assistance of some acquaintances who can. While incendiary content could be found in many different languages on the platform, the bulk of the fake news was in Hindi, the language of much of India’s Hindu majority, and spoken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi has used a brand of populist Hindu nationalism to fuel his rise to power.

In just a few minutes of browsing the Helo app, several problematic posts were found. Examples of fake and harmful Hindi content include this, which falsely claims that US President Donald Trump had advocated for Modi to become “prime minister for life”:

The headline cites US President Donald Trump as saying Narendra Modi should be India’s prime minister for life. 

Or this one, which accuses the country’s Muslim minority of being the culprits behind the bulk of the country’s rapes, and claims that members of Modi’s rival politicians place blame on Hindus:

The headline claims that over the past decade in India, 40,000 rapes had been committed, and that of these 39,000 were committed by Muslims. It continues: ‘Even then, the Congress Party claims Hindus are rapists and terrorists. Shame on them.’ 

The photo (below), which was trending under the hashtag ‘Temple-Mosque debate’ falsely quotes an opposition leader promising to reverse a court decision allowing the construction of a Hindu ‘Ram Temple.’ This is a hot-button issue in India, as Hindu-Muslim tensions are fanned by local politicians promising to build a temple over an existing mosque:

This headline cites Indian politician Kapil Sibal as saying: ‘If the Supreme Court decides in favor of the Ram Temple, [and] the Congress Party comes to power in 2019, we will pass an ordinance to reverse the court’s decision.’
Many of these posts become even more dangerous when they become shared over messaging apps like WhatsApp, the one that is most popular in India. Helo encourages the sharing of its content via WhatsApp, by featuring an option to do so through a WhatsApp logo button in the lower left-hand corner of the post.

Earlier this year, 20 people were killed in religious and ethnically motivated mob violence, based on erroneous assumptions drawn from fake news stories, shared via WhatsApp. As a well-known Silicon Valley-based messenger app, WhatsApp has drawn much of the blame from international media for spreading misinformation and fueling the violence.

WhatsApp is a relatively bare-bones messaging app. It does not employ algorithms which are biased toward one form of content over another. This is not the case for Helo and Bytedance’s other content recommendation apps.

A lit match in a tinderbox 

The fake news frenzy comes as India’s political environment intensifies in the run-up to elections in the first half of next year. While fake news shared on social media platforms famously disrupted the 2016 US elections, its impact could perhaps be even more pronounced in the world’s second-most-populous country, and largest democracy.

With approximately 10 million Indians getting online for the first time each month, the internet is rapidly transforming political and social life in the country. This, however, carries with it very real threats to stability. Many of India’s new netizens live in rural towns or small cities and have a limited educational background. These people may lack the experience or knowledge necessary to discern fake news from genuine reporting.

What is also worth noting about these new Indian netizens is that unlike the wealthier, more educated earlier generation, nine out of 10 of those getting online in India now consume content not in English, but primarily in their local languages, according to a Google report. For platforms, this makes content moderation a far more difficult and complicated task.

This online environment is also now becoming a battleground for China’s internet companies’ proxy war. Having launched Helo in June of this year, Bytedance has poured an estimated $20 million into the Indian market, already attracting over 5 million users. It has aggressively taken on ShareChat, (locally owned, but Xiaomi-invested) for the clickbait crown, even mimicking ShareChat’s user interface to such an extent that it led to a lawsuit from the Bangalore-based startup.

While it is difficult to identify proof of direct causation, it is worth noting that these platforms have risen to popularity as India has seen a wave of violence that is being blamed on fake news. It is also worth noting that the issues behind the acts of violence are the same that can be seen across these platforms.

However, when comparing platforms like Helo and ShareChat to others such as Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, or Weibo, one distinction should be made. Facebook and WeChat for example, can at times, spread misinformation and stoke outrage. In fact, it has been well-documented that Facebook’s algorithms were making this worse (although they have since reorganized their algorithms to focus on “meaningful social connections.”)

Yet, these platforms were not designed with the purpose of doing that, and they provide several other benefits. They connect family members, facilitate financial transactions, offer a platform for innovation, and generally make life and communication easier.

Whatever fake news they promote or division they foment, the argument can be made convincingly that they serve a useful and productive purpose in society, that the world is better with them than it is without. However, while these problems may be bugs in the systems of Twitter or Weibo, it seems as though for these others, they are in fact features.

This is particularly true for Helo, and other Bytedance news apps. While there are any number of popular news platforms available, what makes Bytedance’s different? One way is that it recognizes the types of headlines that get the most clicks, and applies them to the news stories they publish. This often leads to headlines that are more provocative or divisive than the actual content of the article. This can cause users to be misinformed simply by scanning through the headlines.

It also curates and targets content for users, creating feedback loops of information. Since most readers are not considering how their clicks may affect future recommendations, they end up creating a bubble for themselves without even realizing it. For the less-educated, new internet-users, which Bytedance’s news apps often target, they often have no understanding of how the app is influencing them.

Par for the course

This isn’t the first time that Bytedance’s news apps have been accused of spreading fake news. Its wildly popular Chinese app Jinri Toutiao has faced a series of disciplinary action from regulators for inappropriate content. English-language Topbuzz has struggled with a fake news problem as well and has recently taken steps to remove the patently false content that once filled the platform, although it is clear that the app aims far more to titillate and provoke outrage than it does to inform.

“At Helo, we take issues such as misinformation and fake news very seriously. This is why we work very closely with our local content review and moderation team in harnessing our algorithms to review and take down inappropriate content according to our Community Guidelines,” said a company representative told me in an email. They also claimed to be partnering with a local, non-partisan fact-checking authority to ensure that their platform’s content is safe and viable. However, even the months-old fake news posts cited earlier in the article have yet to be removed. Helo representatives also declined to mention how many people were assigned to their content moderation team.

After Chinese regulators severely cracked down on the company in April, Bytedance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming promised that the company would employ as many as 10,000 Chinese content moderators. In its international markets, the company has yet to receive the same degree of scrutiny from authorities.

When looking at the content Bytedance’s news platforms throughout the world and in various languages, the algorithms tend to promote the same type of articles: Those that foment anger and divisiveness, running along fault lines such as racial and religious issues, often involving controversial and famous celebrities and political leaders. Its algorithms are designed to get clicks, and it has learned that few things attract eyeballs like outrage. What the algorithm seems unable to determine is whether the content is accurate.

While Bytedance’s algorithms have found that fake news-fueled outrage is the trick to drive user engagement on their news apps, for their video app TikTok (formerly Musical.ly in some markets), underage sexuality seems to be the magic ingredient, as I wrote about in detail last month.

What is perhaps most disappointing is how Bytedance, which is the world’s most valuable internet startup, has chosen to respond to the much-deserved criticism that it receives. While publicly releasing such boilerplate statements as the one given to Hindustan Times above, the company’s representatives behave far more questionable behind the scenes.

Bitter experience

When a YouTube video went viral for drawing attention to the underage sexuality and safety risks posed by TikTok, Bytedance filed a complaint with YouTube (a platform on which Bytedance advertises heavily), claiming falsely that the uploader of the viral video was guilty of copyright infringement. Although initially removed by YouTube, the company has since put the video back up.

Bytedance’s teen protection problem

Indeed, Bytedance is known for such bullying tactics. In the famously cut-throat world of the Chinese internet ecosystem, Bytedance has stood out as willing to go even further than most to silence their critics, using unfounded accusations of defamation or copyright infringement to bully small, independent outlets to remove stories.

In other situations, they will pressure publishers’ investors, hoping that keeping the negative stories online just won’t be worth the trouble. These tactics are frequently discussed and complained about in China tech circles, even leading Tencent’s low-key chairman Pony Ma to complain publicly about “black PR.”

Bytedance is fully aware of the social problems that their platforms are causing. And they seem willing to go further than most to make sure the public doesn’t know about them.

To look at the profile of Bytedance founder and CEO Zhang Yiming is to see what seems to be a contradiction. A 35-year-old self-proclaimed “geek,” Zhang has famously said that his greatest strength is his ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a longer-term goal. This has certainly helped him as an entrepreneur build his startup into the most valuable in the world.

However, there is an irony here as well, that the man who is so disciplined has created a product designed to take advantage of those who do not have the same personal strength and to exploit the psychological vulnerabilities of those who know no better.

Or maybe he is simply a good student of Chinese history and has learned that selling an addictive and harmful product to foreign markets, and then attacking those who sound the alarm about its negative effects, can be quite a profitable business.

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