The ugly truth about TikTok
Startling internal documents reveal that the makers of TikTok - the wildly popular Chinese video-sharing app that is used by millions of people around the world - told moderators to suppress – in other words, deliberately censor and render invisible – videos from people who were ‘ugly, poor, and disabled’.
Beauty, they say, lies in the eyes of the beholder. It’s probably true; the people and animals we love are infinitely more beautiful to us because we love them. Every mother thinks her child is the most beautiful; there’s even a proverb along those lines that goes something like this (even though it loses something in the translation): To a crow, its chick is the most beautiful.
I’ve always known that beauty is incredibly subjective. Unless you won the genetic lottery (less than one per cent of people in the world do) and are therefore conventionally attractive, you are likely considered most beautiful by the people who love you. And then there’s me. I deliberately see the beauty in everyone, because it exists. I wish everyone did the same.
TikTok certainly doesn’t. In startling internal documents that were obtained by The Intercept, the makers of TikTok, the wildly popular Chinese video-sharing app that is used by millions of people around the world, told moderators to suppress – in other words, deliberately censor and render invisible – videos from people who were ‘ugly, poor, and disabled’. So much for TikTok being an app for everyone – it isn’t.
With a reported 800 million monthly users (at last count), there is no doubt that TikTok is a viral sensation. I’ve seen TikTok videos doing the rounds on both my Twitter and Facebook timelines, even though I personally don’t use the app. TikTok videos have made many people famous and rich; even though it reportedly doesn’t pay out as much money as YouTube does, popular TikTok stars can make as much as $10,000 per video. No matter who you are, that is serious money.
TikTok likes to portray itself as a platform that celebrates creativity and that is welcoming of everyone, but that is far from the truth. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a company that was founded by Zhang Yiming in 2012. The company is famous for making social media apps – China’s answer to Facebook, if you will – and a number of popular websites. The 35-year-old founder of Bytedance has a net worth of roughly $13 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, making him China's 9th-richest person and one of the fastest in modern times to amass a mega-fortune.
But like the country in which TikTok was born, the documents obtained show that the app also censors political speech in its live streams, even going so far as to punish those who harm ‘national honour’. The app also suppresses videos about military movements, natural disasters, and what people living in democracies around the world would consider ‘free speech’. It also suppresses anything that depicts poverty of any kind, including dilapidated homes, settings that showcase poorer residences and neighbourhoods, and ‘disreputable decorations’ in the homes of its users, with the document going as far as to instruct moderators to scan uploaded videos for cracks in the walls. Punishment constituted censorship by limiting that video’s reach and making it invisible to other users.
According to The Intercept, the documents that they managed to source appeared to originally have been written in Chinese, and then awkwardly translated into English for the benefit of moderators and TikTok employees working in their global offices. Bytedance has, in the past, come under scrutiny by the US government for their close ties to China’s ruling party, and numerous complaints that the app’s censorship tactics mirror those of Beijing’s. Some US senators have even called for government personnel in the United States to stop using the app as it represents a very real threat to national security.
Josh Gartner, a spokesperson for TikTok, denied that the guidelines listed in the documents were still in place, adding that “most of” the live stream guidelines reviewed by The Intercept “are either no longer in use, or in some cases appear to never have been in place,” but would not provide specifics. Regarding TikTok's 'ugly' policy with regards to unattractive, disabled, or poor users, Gartner stated that the rules “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.”
It seems clear though that the guidelines were created in 2019 and were in use for the latter half of 2019, even if they're not specifically in use now, for which we only have Gartner's word. It's also ironic that a rule that was put in place to allegedly "prevent bullying" actually ends up bullying people instead. By censoring and regulating traffic to the videos of people TikTok considered unattractive, they were silencing their voices and preventing them from telling their stories. They were bullying people who didn't fit in with TikTok's concepts of beauty.
I reviewed the document about physical flaws that TikTok deems ugly. It reads like a list of physical characteristics shared by tens of thousands of human beings the world over, and it distressed me immensely. Here’s a sampling, and it’s verbatim.
1) Abnormal body shape, chubby, have obvious beer belly, obese, or too thin (not limited to: dwarf, acromegaly)
2) Ugly facial looks (not limited to: disformatted face, fangs, lack of front teeth, senior people with too many wrinkles, obvious facial scars) or facial deformities (not limited to: eye disorders, crooked mouth disease and other disabilities)
As far as the ‘shooting environment’ goes, these are TikTok’s rules; once again, it’s verbatim.
1) The shooting environment is shabby and dilapidated, such as, not limited to: slums, rural fields (rural beautiful natural scenery could be exempted), dilapidated housing, construction sites, etc. (For internal housing background which has no obvious slummy character, only those cases as specified should be labelled: crack on the wall, old and disreputable decorations, extremely dirty and messy)
Curious as to whether these rules truly are no longer in place, I did the unthinkable and downloaded the app onto my phone. After spending hours on the site, I am yet to find one video that isn’t by someone who is acceptably attractive. I see no fat people on TikTok, no disabled people, nobody with crooked teeth, nobody in houses with ‘disreputable’ decorations, nobody old who, god forbid, has wrinkles. TikTok’s suppression tactics may well still be in place. Either that or the app only attracts the attractive.
If people were to stop using the app altogether in protest of these rules that label and censor their fellow human beings, TikTok will likely grow a conscience. But I know that the mass boycott I dream of is unlikely to happen. The app is going from strength to strength, making its young founder richer and richer. TikTok’s guidelines page that outlines its rules for use are free from language that will make them a target, focusing on joy and creativity, and the absolute lie that the app is for everyone. TikTok even assures users that they remove all abusive content, keeping the dark secret of their own abuse of already disadvantaged and disenfranchised people away from the prying eyes of their adoring users.