- TikTok, the social-media platform wildly popular with Gen Z, had in some markets directed moderators to keep users that they judged to be disabled, poor, or ugly from the app’s “For You” page.
- ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok said the policies – published by The Intercept – were never in place in the US market and were no longer in use at all.
- The Intercept also found the app had policies that could result in permanent bans for users who livestreamed negative content about the government, or government figures and their families.
- Sources said both policies had been in use as of late 2019.
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TikTok, the Chinese-owned social-media platform that has skyrocketed in popularity, particularly among Gen Z, once had policies in place that told moderators to censor content from people it believed to be ugly, overweight, disabled, or poor.
The policies were first published by The Intercept on Monday. Policies specifically told moderators to avoid promoting “abnormal body shape, chubby, have obvious beer belly, obese, or too thin.” The policies also specifically targeted users with disabilities, saying enforcement of such policies was not just “limited to” people with dwarfism or with “acromegaly.”
“If the character’s appearance or the shooting environment is not good, the video will be much less attractive,” and was not worth recommending to TikTok users, the policy, published by The Intercept, said.
A policy prohibiting “ugly facial looks” specifically mentioned people with “eye disorders, crooked mouth disease, and other disabilities.” It said this policy was “not limited to: disformatted face, fangs, lack of front teeth, senior people with too many wrinkles, obvious facial scars, or facial deformities.”
In addition to policies that targeted users’ appearances and users who had disabilities, the document revealed ByteDance also asked moderators to avoid promoting content that appeared to be created in areas deemed by moderators to be “slums, rural fields (rural beautiful natural scenery could be exempted), dilapidated housing,” or “construction sites,” according to the leaked document.
The policy was put in place to attract new users, as the company said the content it told moderators to avoid would show its app was “less fancy and appealing.” While moderators weren’t directed to outright remove such content from TikTok, they were told not to promote it on the app’s “For You” page, which is the app’s main feed generated – at least partially – by an algorithm responsible for distributing TikTok videos to the app’s millions of users.
According to The Intercept, a spokesperson for ByteDance said “most of” the guidelines reported by The Intercept were no longer in place or were never implemented at all.
The policies “represented an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying, but are no longer in place, and were already out of use when The Intercept obtained them,” a TikTok spokesperson told The Intercept. The spokesperson did not explain why the policies never mentioned bullying.
The Intercept also obtained a document specifically concerned with TikTok’s livestreaming feature, which prohibited “defamation … towards civil servants, political or religious leaders” and toward “the families of related leaders.” The actions were punishable by the company ending a user’s stream and suspending them for one day.
ByteDance moderators were directed to permanently ban anyone found to be “endangering national security” or “national honour and interests” or created content that promoted the “uglification or distortion of local or other countries’ history.”
Sources told The Intercept that the two sets of policies it published Monday were in use at least until the end of 2019. The policy document about livestreams was created last year, sources said.
A TikTok spokesperson told The Verge such policies were never used in the US and were used only in other markets.
“Like all platforms, we have policies that protect our users, and protect national security, for example banning any accounts that promote hate speech or terrorism, as outlined in our Community Standards,” a TikTok spokesperson told The Intercept.
An entire host of government organisations, including all branches US Military and the TSA, have initiated bans on the app, citing security concerns over the app’s Chinese ownership.
The Guardian in December published documents that found the app’s moderators were told to censor content that could potential anger the Chinese government.
The Intercept also reported the company had more mild policies for racist videos – suspensions of only one month – and that the company had been padding the service with “shadow” accounts operated by company employees who downloaded and reposted content from Instagram.
TikTok has about 800 million active global users according to leaked documents from TikTok, eMarketer reported.