Several former employees of short video app TikTok have said that managers in the Beijing offices of parent company Bytedance have the final say about what content appears on the app despite executives’ repeated denials of claims that it censors politically sensitive content, The Washington Post reported.

Why it matters: US legislators are scrutinizing Bytedance out of concern about its censorship and data security practices following the leak of documents detailing its content filtering policies in September. The company has denied nearly all of the accusations, but provided little information about its policies.

“They want to be a global company, and numbers-wise, they’ve had that success…But the purse is still in China: The money always comes from there, and the decisions all come from there.”

⁠—A former Bytedance manager who left the company this year to The Washington Post

Details: According to former TikTok employees, content moderators based in Beijing routinely ignored their requests not to block or penalize videos related to certain social and political topics, possibly to prevent the Chinese government from punishing other Bytedance apps, according to the report.

  • The former employees also said they were instructed to follow rules set by managers at Bytedance’s Beijing headquarters, which were inconsistent and shifted frequently.
  • Former US-based TikTok moderators said that content rules are intended to shield the platform from anger and negativity, as well as content that is deemed culturally problematic in China, such as videos with suggestive dance moves.
  • While some flagged videos were removed outright, others are blocked from appearing in user feeds, making it difficult for content creators to determine that their videos had been penalized, some former moderators told The Post.
  • TikTok US general manager Vanessa Pappas said in a written response to The Post that the company is no longer using a universal set of standards for content moderation and that her California-based team is managing the US market.
  • Bytedance also said that the internal content moderation guidelines reported by the Guardian in September were retired in May, adding that the company had previously used “a blunt approach” to reduce conflict.

Context: TikTok declined to testify at a Tuesday congressional hearing organized by Republican Senator John Hawley that explored issues such as data security and censorship on the platform.

  • Instead of attending, TikTok sent a letter to Congress repeating its earlier claims. The company said that it hasn’t and wouldn’t remove content at the request of the Chinese government, and that it stores all US user data in the US with backups in Singapore.
  • During the hearing, Hawley cited The Post’s report and asked TikTok executives to appear in person and answer for the discrepancies between the letter sent to Congress and what former employees said.

TikTok reaffirms independence from China in letter to US lawmakers

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail:

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