TikTok has roped in corporate law firm K&L Gates LLP, including former US Congressmen Bart Gordon and Jeff Denham to review the platform’s content moderation policies for the US. While TikTok brings joy to many and has garnered millions of users in the US, “but it also brings great responsibility on our part,” said TikTok’s US general manager Vanessa Pappas in a statement. Denham is a former US House Representative from the Republican Party and is now government affairs counselor at K&L Gates. Gordon is also former US House Representative, and chaired the House Committee on Science and Technology from 2007 to 2010.
What TikTok will review: “With this in mind, we want to share some of our near-term plans to further strengthen our teams, moderation policies, and overall transparency,” Pappas said. TikTok’s US team will work with the law firm to create a committee of outside experts to advise on and review content moderation policies, including for:
- Child safety
- Hate speech
- Bullying, and other potential issues.
The review is also aimed to increase transparency around the content moderation policies, and build more internal leaders to deal with the challenges that TikTok’s “rapid expansion” will bring.
Why now, and why this matters: TikTok has faced criticism recently after it was revealed that the app — operated by Beijing based startup Bytedance — censors various kinds of political content, including those about the Hong Kong protests and pro-LGBT content. The Guardian had reported that the app is “advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app” by censoring videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.
- Criticism of the Chinese socialist system is also banned, and so is “demonisation or distortion of local or other countries’ history such as May 1998 riots of Indonesia, Cambodian genocide, Tiananmen Square incidents”.
- It also bans “highly controversial topics, such as separatism, religion sects conflicts, conflicts between ethnic groups, for instance exaggerating the Islamic sects conflicts, inciting the independence of Northern Ireland, Republic of Chechnya, Tibet and Taiwan and exaggerating the ethnic conflict between black and white”.
- Last week, TikTok banned political ads in the United States and Europe.
TikTok’s US trajectory: TikTok launched in the US a little over a year ago. In September, it was the third most-downloaded non-gaming app in the US, ahead of Facebook and Messenger, according to Sensor Tower. It was also the No. 1 social media app worldwide at that time. The app has already been fined $5.7 million by the FTC for violating the US children’s privacy law COPPA, after which it began directing kids under 13 years to a more restricted in-app experience that protects their personal information and doesn’t let them publish videos.
Last week, US Senator Marco Rubio requested the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States look into ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly, accusing the app of censorship.
“There continues to be ample and growing evidence that TikTok’s platform for Western markets, including the U.S., is censoring content that is not in line with the Chinese Government and Communist Party directives.”
— US Senator Rubio
TikTok’s India trajectory: As of June, India was TikTok’s top market with followed by USA, and then Indonesia. TikTok banned political ads before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, its advertising policy for India states:
“TikTok does not permit political advertising. TikTok defines political advertising to include content that promotes a current or former political leader, candidate for public office, political party or group, or advocates a view on a nationally recognized topic of discussion with political motives.”
The BJP has nominated TikTok sensation Sonali Phogat as its candidate for the Adampur seat in the upcoming Haryana state elections. Phogat has more than 161,000 followers on TikTok and has clocked more than 738,000 likes on the platform. At the same time, the BJP government has rapped raised concerns around the platform and threatened it of a ban, MeitY had issued a notice to TikTok and Helo, asking them to respond to concerns that they were being used to commit anti-India and unlawful activities.
RSS affiliate Swadeshi Jagran Manch has openly criticised TikTok as being a hub for “anti-national content”, capable of disrupting the “fabric of our society”. BJP functionaries had written to the Election Commission during the last General Election raising concerns over morphed political advertisements on the platform.