TikTok became the latest app used by younger social media users earlier this year. From lip-sync battles to dance skits, geopolitics has been a relatively rare feature on the platform – until this week.
A user, known as Feroza Aziz, first posted a video that starts with beauty tips but leads to a call for people to pay attention to the treatment of Uighur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region of China.
Why did her video hit the headlines?
Aziz posted the video on the platform on November 23. Two days later, she was locked out of her account, with her log-in suspended. The video, however, remained on-site, garnering views. On November 27, TikTok removed the video for a period of 50 minutes, prompting calls as to why this had occurred, and questions as to whether this was part of a censorship campaign.
As calls for answers mounted, TikTok issued a detailed timeline. According to TikTok, Aziz had a previous account on the platform. On November 14, a video posted on TikTok “included the image of Osama bin Laden” which resulted in a ban “in line with TikTok’s policies against content that includes imagery related to terrorist figures”.
Later that evening, Aziz created another account on the same phone, posting a three-part series aimed at calling attention to the Uighur community in China less than two weeks later. TikTok stated that on a scheduled routine moderation sweep, TikTok noted that Aziz had created a new account on the same phone. As part of their moderation policy of banning devices associated with a banned account, her access was cut.
While Aziz no longer had access to the account, her videos remained. The pulling of the video on November 27 was due to a human error, TikTok said in the statement. “It’s important to clarify that nothing in our Community Guidelines precludes content such as this video, and it should not have been removed,” they said.
TikTok issued an apology to the user for “their error,” adding that their “moderation approach of banning devices associated with a banned account is designed to protect against the spread of coordinated malicious behaviour – and it’s clear that this was not the intent here”. They also reinstated access to her account.
Aziz dismissed TikTok’s statement, on Twitter saying that her previous post that had breached company guidelines was “satirical“. Others were incredulous with regards to the timing of the suspension, saying that it was not a coincidence. Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch (HRW) took to Twitter to say that the “the timing looks way too much like Beijing’s censorship“.
How has China responded?
Although TikTok is a Chinese company, they have dismissed claims of being swayed by Beijing – previously stating that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has no jurisdiction over its content.
Chinese state media, however, responded sharply to the viral video. Global Times, a Chinese state newspaper, claimed that Western media was behind the rise of the content. “When Western media make blindly criticizing China an attractive trend, people like Feroza Aziz will follow suit either to build a reputation as human rights defenders or to attract public attention,” they said.
A new type of social media activism?
With Aziz’ video dominating the discussion, a wave of social media users have followed suit. Numerous social media videos have appeared, including this and others shared by high profile politicians such as US Democrat Ilhan Omar. Other users mimicked her eyelash curling tutorial, although dismissing claims of abuse and mass detention of the Uighur Muslim community in Xinjiang as lies.
The outstanding question, for many, is the lack of clarity in moderating processes. This, for many users, makes the line between moderating content and censorship, blurred.