The Chinese video-sharing app TikTok has roughly 800 million users every day. While it works to bolster an image as a hub for global self-expression, it works with the Chinese government to suppress dissent. Now, recent documents show that TikTok also suppressed images of people that it didn’t feel gave the best impression of Chinese society, including people with disabilities.
Videos showing poverty or unpleasantness of any kind are being suppressed, and that includes videos showing people with disabilities. The plans to suppress these videos is laid out in internal documents obtained by the Intercept.
Video sharers on TikTok aim to be included in the “For You” section of the app. This is a firehose of videos promoted by secret criteria. Even today, no one knows specifically what gets a video included in the “For You” section — but we now know some of the things that could keep a video out.
TikTok apparently argued that uploads by undesirable might “decrease the short-term new user retention rate,” says one policy document. “If the character’s appearance of the shooting environment is not good, the video will be much less attracted, not worthing [sic] to be recommended to new users.”
Moderators were explicitly advised to suppress videos by users with flaws, such as:
- Abnormal body shape
- Ugly facial looks
- Obvious beer belly
- Too many wrinkles
- Eye disorders
- Other “low quality” traits
Additionally, moderators were told to watch out for symptoms of poverty, such as “slummy character [sic],” “crack on the wall” or “old and disreputable decorations.”
A TikTok spokesperson told the Intercept that the policies are no longer in use and, in some cases, may never have been in use. He added that the suppression rules “represented an early blunt attempt at preventing bullying,” although no anti-bullying rationale appears in the documents. Instead, the rationale for the suppression was explicitly to boost new membership by providing an aspirational appearance to the site.
At the same time, TikTok apparently took certain users and influencers under its wing to prevent them from being accidentally suppressed.
TikTok also adopted policies that suppressed political speech by users. According to the Intercept, these policies were often more strict than the Chinese government’s policies. For example, TikTok broadcasts could not defame civil servants of relatives of party members, endanger national security or even harm “national honor and interests.” Users who uploaded videos thought to be unpopular with Beijing were knocked off the platform, sometimes permanently. “Disrupting national unity” could get you banned permanently.
In the United States, it almost certainly violates civil rights laws to suppress the content of people with disabilities. Whether TikTok can be held to account for its actions remains to be seen.