The wildly popular short-video app TikTok has become one of the world's fastest-growing social media platforms, known for its quirky memes and viral singalongs. But its happy-go-lucky rise was largely shaped by its Beijing-based parent company, which imposed strict rules on what could appear on the app in keeping with China's restrictive view of acceptable speech.
Following those rules often sparked clashes within the organisation, former US employees of the company told The Washington Post. American workers, accustomed to unrestrained expression online, bristled at commands to restrict videos that Beijing-based teams had deemed subversive or controversial, including heavy kissing, heated debates and the kinds of political discussions seen widely across the Web.
TikTok says its US operation doesn't censor political content or take instructions from its parent company, the Chinese tech giant ByteDance. Company leaders extol the app as a platform free of the contentious content that has come to characterise its online competitors, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. ByteDance said no moderators for TikTok's US platform are based in China.
But former US employees said moderators based in Beijing had the final call on whether flagged videos were approved. The former employees said their attempts to persuade Chinese teams not to block or penalise certain videos were routinely ignored, out of caution about the Chinese government's restrictions and previous penalties on other ByteDance apps.
Beijing's potential influence over the app in the United States has led the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review the deal that brought TikTok's forerunner, Musical.ly, under ByteDance's control. Lawmakers have urged US officials to investigate what they called "a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore."
Convening a congressional hearing Tuesday - a session at which TikTok officials declined to testify - Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., ripped the company for its connections to China and refusal to answer key questions on Capitol Hill.
"TikTok claims they don't take direction from China. They claim they don't censor . . . But that's not what former employees of TikTok say," said Hawley, citing The Post's reporting.
Top TikTok executives declined to be interviewed for this article. In written responses to questions, company leaders acknowledged early stumbles and touted recent efforts earlier this year to increase US hiring, update content-moderation rules and fortify the US team's independence from its Chinese owners.
"TikTok has grown quickly, much like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat grew during their early years," said Vanessa Pappas, the company's US general manager. "And like those platforms, growth has posed challenges in terms of making sure our policies and practices keep up."
The short-video app has become a global phenomenon and taken young American audiences by storm, blending silly jokes, stunts and personal stories into a tech powerhouse downloaded more than 1.3 billion times worldwide.
The company attracted little official attention in Washington as it sailed to the top of US app stores, a rare corner of the Internet where lighthearted entertainment, not bitter political discussion, dominates.
But former employees who worked in the company's US offices as recently as this spring said they were instructed to follow rules set by managers at ByteDance's Beijing headquarters, such as demoting and removing content related to social and political topics, including those censored by the Chinese government. The Post talked to six since-departed workers who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
"They want to be a global company, and numbers-wise, they've had that success," said one former ByteDance manager who left this year. "But the purse is still in China: The money always comes from there, and the decisions all come from there."
Pappas, a former YouTube official who joined the company earlier this year, said in a statement that decisions about which videos to promote or remove "are not directed by any foreign government, including the Chinese government."
Of former employees' experiences with strict rules set in Beijing, Pappas said, "We initially took a 'one-size-fits-all' approach and quickly realised that this wouldn't work."
Her California-based team is now managing the US market, she added, "and the company understands they can best do so without executives 10,000 miles away involving themselves in their decisions."
The tensions inside ByteDance, and the circumstances surrounding its rise, highlight a growing challenge for the American internet as Chinese tech giants race to expand and compete more directly with social media firms in the West. As new Chinese apps aspire to outmatch Silicon Valley in investor funding, worker talent and viewer attention, they also are competing more subtly and deeply over ideals: namely, the value of political expression and free speech online.
Concerns about TikTok are aggravated by the fact that it is far less transparent than its peers in Silicon Valley. The company has long stayed silent about its policies, offering little detail about how the app presents an endless buffet of visual candy - and where the company draws the line on content it deems inappropriate.
TikTok provides no data about the videos it has removed from the app, and it shares no details about the artificial-intelligence tools that determine what viewers see. That secrecy also has contributed to keeping the company out of international organisations that might serve as key forums for oversight of censorship, harmful content and other digital ills.
Facing scrutiny for its privacy practices, TikTok in July retained consultants at the cybersecurity firm Special Counsel to analyse the app's source code and data-storage practices. Doug Brush, a company vice president, said Monday that his team discovered some "low-risk vulnerabilities" but that there was "no indication" that the Chinese government accessed TikTok users' data. Brush said that ByteDance committed to paying his firm an undisclosed amount in consulting fees, and that a fuller report of the consultants' findings was not yet ready for review.
Alex Stamos, the director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former chief security officer at Facebook, said there are "legitimate concerns" about the potential for user censorship and surveillance on TikTok, especially because the app has grown significantly among young users.
The company "is operating under a political censorship regime," he said, and "the Chinese government has no problem telling [its companies] where they should come down in political debates."
ByteDance executives said TikTok stores all US user data in Virginia and Singapore. But Stamos said where the data is stored is "pretty much irrelevant": "The leverage the government has over the people who have access to that data, that's what's relevant."
ByteDance bought the popular karaoke app Musical.ly in 2017 and merged it with its own service under the TikTok name last year. Led by Zhang Yiming, one of China's richest men, ByteDance runs a stable of news and entertainment apps worldwide, including the popular US news-aggregation app TopBuzz. ByteDance is worth about $75 billion, making it more valuable than the tech companies Uber and Snapchat, combined.
TikTok has been downloaded more than 120 million times in the United States, and it has regularly outranked its top competitors, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, on the iPhone and Google app stores, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. The research firm Ghost Data, conducting an analysis of millions of accounts for The Post, found that TikTok is quickly becoming a major rival to Instagram: Users with followings in the thousands appear to watch and interact with content more than similar users on Instagram, and TikTok is becoming competitive even among the influencer set. It was one of many factors that led Andrea Stroppa and fellow researchers to write that "it is too early to simply dismiss TikTok as (a) passing fad."
To handle exploding demand in the United States, the company hired a new head of US moderation in April and has in recent months embarked on a hiring blitz, pursuing dozens of new engineers, strategists and executives for its offices in New York, Los Angeles and Palo Alto, California.
ByteDance said the TikTok organisation in the United States is independent from China. But Pappas told The Post that her boss, Musical.ly co-founder Alex Zhu, reports directly to Yiming, ByteDance's founder. In a statement, Pappas said, "Alex has been clear that my team and I have a large degree of autonomy, and full autonomy on decisions like content moderation."
The company has also staffed up in Washington. TikTok announced last month that it would retain two former members of Congress as part of a broader effort to revise its content-moderation policies and fend off political controversy. ByteDance also registered its first federal lobbyists earlier this year.
But TikTok at times has found itself isolated from its Silicon Valley counterparts Facebook, Google and Twitter, which have banded together to try to combat their platforms' thorniest problems.
"Their growth was, I think even for them, unexpected and vast," said Stephen Balkam, the leader of the Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit organisation that helps companies improve their practices that TikTok only recently joined. For years, he said, FOSI and other groups tried to contact Musical.ly, to no avail. "I think they were struggling to keep up with the amount of stuff that was posted and how to deal with it," he said.
Unlike the three tech giants, for example, TikTok and ByteDance aren't part of an international effort that aims to combat extremism online. The Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) has helped social media companies identify violent videos around major international incidents and stop their spread online in real time.
TikTok said it had met with GIFCT leaders. But the company has not been granted membership because it does not meet the group's criteria, which require companies to meet certain conditions on human rights and to publish transparency reports, according to a source familiar with the matter but not authorised to discuss its private proceedings. In practice, that means TikTok cannot easily access real-time information about extremist content going viral.
Nor are ByteDance and TikTok participants in the Global Network Initiative, a collection of companies that have pledged to resist unlawful or overly broad requests from governments to access user data, the group confirmed. The GNI does annual checkups of its members, including Facebook and Google, to ensure they're keeping their promises. No such oversight exists of TikTok, and fears run high that the Chinese government can access US users' data despite the company's insistence otherwise.
Greg Nojeim, a senior counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology and a GNI board member, said ByteDance's decision not to participate "suggests a lack of accountability for takedown and surveillance conduct that could be prompted by government demands."
Unlike its Western social media rivals, TikTok is strikingly light on the political and social topics that much of the world is commenting on - including, as some researchers told The Post in September, a dearth of content related to the Hong Kong protests that China has fiercely fought to undermine. As the company has shifted its moderation rules and gained new prominence, some notable exceptions have emerged: Videos with the #trump2020 hashtag, for instance, have more than 200 million views.
A set of internal company guidelines, published by the Guardian newspaper in September, instructed TikTok moderators to ban videos and topics in line with Chinese-government censorship policies, including the "distortion" of historic events such as "Tiananmen Square incidents"; "criticism/attack" of countries' policies or social rules, including the "socialism system"; and discussion of "highly controversial topics," which the rules said included the independence of Tibet and Taiwan.
ByteDance said then that the rules were a relic of TikTok's early days when the company took "a blunt approach" to minimising conflict, and that they had been retired in May, after the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times in the United States. The company said it would "further increase transparency" regarding its new policies, but it repeatedly has declined to share them.
Former employees who spoke with The Post said they struggled with cultural conflicts, shifting guidelines and inconsistencies in how TikTok handled content for US audiences. The former workers said they often felt subordinate to their Chinese managers and co-workers, who followed different rules of acceptable speech and often declined to explain why they'd blocked certain videos or ideas.
Some former employees said the company's strict content rules were designed to help protect the platform from the anger and negativity seen elsewhere on the Web. The company, they said, wanted to preserve it as a haven of light and positive video, where political disputes were banned and social discussions were fun and tame.
But some said they grew concerned after being told to flag videos deemed potentially culturally problematic, even if the content was generally acceptable in the United States. Videos including heavy kissing or more suggestive dance moves, for instance, were to be marked "vulgar" and blocked from younger viewers, some former moderators said. And political content - even if it included constructive discussion, and didn't touch on China-related topics - was also restricted in case it contained inflammatory talk or controversy.
Pappas said in a statement that her team is "fully committed to getting our policies right for everyone across our large and diverse user base."
Rules handed down from Beijing-based teams often inspired confusion in the US office, former employees said. Moderators, for instance, were told to restrict any videos showing a person vaping normally, out of health concerns, but to allow the "vaping tricks" that had fueled a viral meme.
Former moderators said flagged videos were either deleted outright or subtly blocked from appearing on the streams through which most videos are seen and shared. This latter method, the moderators said, largely prevented the videos' creators from even knowing the video had been deemed unacceptable.
Similar concerns about the influence of Chinese managers played out at ByteDance's news-aggregation app TopBuzz, which former US-based employees said blocked any critical discussion of China. They were also instructed to block or remove posts including profanity, discussion of legal marijuana and the artwork of Georgia O'Keeffe, whose flower paintings have been famously compared to female genitalia.
Many of the videos the ByteDance moderators deemed objectionable, the employees said, remained on other video sites, such as YouTube, including videos from a comedian known for "fart pranks." Some videos that discussed social or political issues related to black Americans were also flagged and demoted as "urban content," said a TopBuzz employee who left the company earlier this year.
"This is indicative of a growing phenomenon of Chinese tech companies going global," said Elsa Kania, an adjunct senior fellow and China researcher at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank. "For all of their international aspirations, they are expected to adhere to the requirements of the Communist Party, including demands of censorship."
© The Washington Post 2019