Controversies surrounding TikTok:

Censorship and propaganda by TikTok

General potential

Researchers are concerned about the potential, they say, very strong, of the application in the global information war, not least because it could apply the Chinese government's censorship methods to an international audience and shape their understanding of current affairs. These concerns are reinforced by the fact that TikTok provides little information on the content it is removing and the independence it claims to have vis-à-vis Chinese censors. Researchers note that Douyin, only accessible in China, is subject to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) vision on appropriate content and sources, and must abide by censorship rules as well as the Great Firewall of China. Douyin has thus adopted a broad definition of undesirable content, notably prohibiting all those deemed “inconvenient”. According to Matt Schrader, China specialist for the US lobby group Alliance for Securing Democracy, all content that contravenes the official CCP line on Douyin, including the imprisonment of Uyghurs, bribery of high-ranking members of the CCP or videos of protesters in Hong Kong, are quickly withdrawn. Douyin deleted Chinese singer Liu Keqing's account, known for his strong physical resemblance to President Xi Jinping, and whose name and image were used to talk about President Xi bypassing censorship.

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In terms of propaganda, researchers point to the CCP's use of Douyin. For a specialist in the Chinese digital industry, Douyin's generally light and fun content helps to convey the nationalist propaganda messages approved by the Chinese authorities to a young population who is less inclined to consult mainstream media. For a specialist marketing on TikTok, the platform has a massive potential to change the perceptions of the international public, this being facilitated by the fact that most users are young and relatively easy to influence. Researchers also note that TikTok could be used for online disinformation campaigns abroad, as the Chinese authorities have already done on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, by creating fake accounts to denigrate the Hong Kong protesters.

Charges and Practices - TikTok

According to Belinda Barnet, media specialist at the Swinburne University of Technology, there is "no doubt" that TikTok and Douyin contribute to misinformation, both platforms ' practicing censorship and disinformation campaigns to disrupt and guiding public debate ”.

Repression of Uyghurs - TikTok

The subject of the repression of Uyghurs in China is censored or masked on Douyin, leading to the publication of videos that attempt to creatively circumvent this censorship. In November 2019, a video in this style posted by an American teenager on TikTok goes viral , before one of her other accounts, then her phone, is blocked on the platform. Asked by the BBC, TikTok claims not to moderate content based on political sensitivities, and to have made these blocks because of another video showing Osama Bin Laden, which violated its content policy. TikTok then issues a press release on Case, mentioning the blocking of the account and the phone, as well as a brief withdrawal of the video due to an "error" by one of its moderators and then cancelled by a superior. TikTok apologizes for momentarily removing the video and unlocks the teenager's phone in violation of its policy, saying the previous (and satirical) video showing Osama bin Laden was obviously not bad intentional. The platform claims that videos on the situation of Uyghurs in China are allowed, and that the viral video does not violate its moderation policy. The BBC notes that while such videos are present on the platform, they generally do not receive as much attention by far.

Hong Kong protests - TikTok

In September 2019, TikTok was accused of suppressing videos of the Hong Kong protests , which were almost completely absent when searched with the hashtag #HongKong, when the same hashtag revealed a very large number of videos of the protests on Twitter.

Content using popular protest hashtags is also almost or completely absent from the platform. The Washington Post notes that it is impossible to know which videos are censored on TikTok in application of its ban on hateful and extremist content, the decisions of ByteDance on this matter being very opaque and the company not providing tools allowing outsiders to research the topic. The newspaper also notes that it is possible that users in Hong Kong practice self-censorship by avoiding posting politically risky content on an application highly watched by Chinese censors. Responding to censorship allegations, TikTok says content moderation for these users is handled by a US team that is not influenced by the Chinese government. The company does not, however, give details of how this content is moderated and what protects the US moderation team from the influence of Chinese authorities. The company also claims that if Hong Kong posts are so scant, it's because the platform is all about entertainment and not politics, with app users looking for "positive and happy content ". On the other hand, it does not provide an answer to the question of whether Hong Kong's moderation policy for events is the same on TikTok as in its Chinese version Douyin.

Sino-Indian conflict - TikTok

In June 2020, during the fight between Chinese and Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley , The Times of India claims that TikTok is shadow banning videos relating to the fight and conflict on the Sino-Indian border . Searches using some of the hashtags associated with the conflicting videos, yet present on the platform, would yield no results or results relating only to old content. On the other hand, other hashtags related to sensitive topics for China, such as the Tian'anmen protests, would not work for Indian users of TikTok.

Leaked censorship instructions

In September 2019, in the wake of the controversy over the Hong Kong protests, The Guardian newspaper obtained documents that confirmed censorship on TikTok of anti-Chinese government content or content considered sensitive to other governments and companies. This includes content considered to be "demonization or distortions of Chinese or foreign historical events," including the Cambodian genocide, the 1998 riots in Indonesia, and the Tian'anmen Square protests. The rules also prohibit "criticizing the laws and rules of a country", including in particular criticisms of the Chinese socialist system, evoking "separatism, religious conflicts", and "exaggerating conflicts between black and white people". In all these cases, the videos must be hidden and not easily accessible. Other content seems to be able to be completely removed, such as videos promoting discipline and the religious movement Falun Gong, which is banned in China. The mentions of certain personalities are also banned from the platform, in particular of "foreign leaders or sensitive figures" such as Kim Jong-Un , Vladimir Putin , Barack Obama, Donald Trump or Gandhi, but not Chinese President Xi Jinping. TikTok responds by affirming that these rules are no longer in force since May 2019, and that the platform would initially have adopted a “raw” approach to minimize conflicts on the platform, before deciding to moderate the content in a way more local. The platform says it will work with independent local committees to assess its continuous moderation policies and recognizes the need for greater transparency regarding these policies.

The Guardian then reveals information about local rules, including one set of rules said to be “Strict” for countries with conservative morals, and one tied to specific countries. The "strict" rules are significantly more severe than the global rules previously revealed for questions of nudity and vulgarity, in particular prohibiting "partially bare buttocks", necklines with "a length of more than a third of the breast", and detailed descriptions of sanitary napkins. As for rules related to specific countries, the Guardian reveals that in Turkey, prohibited content includes images of alcohol consumption, representations of "non-Islamic" gods , homosexuality and movements for LGBT rights (all legal practices and representations in the country, although there is a law against "obscene" content), Kurdish separatism and criticism of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan . TikTok officials respond to these second revelations by claiming that the rules for Turkey are no longer in effect.

Former TikTok employees in the United States report to the Washington Post that final decisions on content removal were made by ByteDance employees in Beijing.

Users considered unattractive

In 2020, those in charge of the TikTok app are accused by the English magazine The Intercept of censoring ugly, fat, poor or disabled people, in order to broadcast more attractive videos. They deny this information and appoint, in different countries, officials for confidence and security.

TikTok's response to controversies

End 2019, reacting to the controversy over censorship, ByteDance commits the US law firm K & L Gates, including former members of Congress Bart Gordon and Jeff Denham , to advise on moderation policy TikTok, as well as the American lobbying firm Monument Advocacy.

In March 2020, TikTok admits that its practices "are not without reproach" and announces that it will open a "transparent" moderation center in Los Angeles, where outside observers can assess the practices of the social network in terms of regulation of contents. TikTok also claims that it will eventually give these watchers access to the app's code, so they can judge its security and privacy efforts and help it "improve its moderation policy." and its security systems ”.

Privacy and Security issues of TikTok

The platform and its application are the subject of much controversy over its security and privacy. In its privacy policy, TikTok claims to collect, among other things, information on usage, IP address, telephone operator, unique device identifier, keystroke dynamics, and geolocation data.

In August 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Android version of the TikTok app until November 2019 harvested device identifiers, including MAC addresses and IMEIs, bypassing a ban by Google, the developer of Android. Taking advantage of a flaw, the social network was thus able to collect data allowing it to track users' online activities without their consent or even leaving them the possibility of withdrawing this tracking.

TikTok's privacy policy states that the platform may share user data with its parent company ByteDance, a subsidiary or affiliate of the group. It can thus share data with its Chinese counterpart Douyin, which has a policy dedicated to the protection of Chinese national security. This indicates in particular that the company “does not require authorization for the collection and use of personal information”.

Several governments accuse TikTok of being a Trojan horse of the Chinese government. According to Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Institute of Political Strategy, TikTok is obliged to give access to its data if the Chinese intelligence services ask it and to keep this access secret. He cites the country's intelligence regulations, including China's National Intelligence Law, article 7 of which states that "Any organization or citizen shall, in accordance with the law, support, assist and cooperate with the work of national intelligence and keep any national intelligence work of which they are aware”. In other countries, the situation would be different, for example the United States where Apple has publicly refused to decrypt the data an iPhone for the federal police, which then sued the company in court for get.

Following various controversies in 2020, Bytedance produced a report which notably claimed that the United States had made requests for access to user accounts, but not China, including regarding the 2019-2020 protests in Hong Kong.


In Australia, the app launched in May 2019 and is rapidly gaining popularity, reaching 1.5 million users by July 2020. In June 2020, TikTok opens an office in country.

In December 2019, the Australian Senate opened a committee of inquiry into foreign interference through social networks, in particular to analyse the risks of disinformation through this means. A parliamentarian argues that TikTok poses questions in view of its development and management in an illiberal society, criticizes its censorship of anti-Chinese government content, and notes the risks of using social networks in terms of espionage, operations influence, censorship for propaganda purposes and even electoral interference. In July 2020, the chair of the investigation committee said that the experts interviewed were concerned about TikTok, and called on its officials to appear before the committee “Leadership” in the face of this problem.

The managing director of TikTok Australia says that TikTok does not share Australian user data with any foreign government, including the Chinese government, and that the platform would refuse such sharing if requested. He points out that Australian user data is stored in Singapore and that the platform "tries to minimize access to data across regions.  "For Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Institute for Policy Strategy, this formulation is an indirect way of saying that data from Australian TikTok users is passing through China, which would make sense for engineers in Beijing to work on the application. According to Ryan, this is “Particularly worrying" , the Chinese laws on intelligence obliging any company in the country to provide its data on request and not to speak about it when necessary.

United States

In November 2019, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton asked the National Intelligence Directorate to assess the espionage risks that TikTok and other Chinese content platforms operating in the United States pose to the country. They especially believe ByteDance is obliged to respect Chinese laws and thus cooperate with the intelligence services of the Chinese Communist Party, even if user data is stored in the United States. They cite in particular China's new national intelligence law that came into effect in 2017, fearing that the app could give Chinese intelligence secret access to users' smartphones and computers, a charge similar to that made against equipment makers Telecommunications and smartphones Huawei and ZTE . They are also concerned about the apparent censorship of content deemed "too politically sensitive against the Chinese Communist Party" and express fears over China's use of TikTok to pressure the 2020 presidential election. TikTok strongly denies the accusations, saying it is not under the influence of any foreign government, that its data centres are located outside of China, and that its data is not subject to Chinese law. The social network also denies censoring content that would disturb the Chinese government, and claims to have never received a request of this kind, adding that it would not respect it if necessary.

That same month, Republican Senator Josh Hawley invites Apple and TikTok to testify before the United States Congress, at a hearing on digital, personal data and China. TikTok refuses, citing too short a deadline and Apple does not comments.


In India, the platform is subject to controversies over the risks it would pose to its users' data and to India's security and sovereignty in cyberspace, in the context of the country's military conflict with China.

Companies views on TikTok

In July 2020, Amazon asked its employees to remove the application from any phone with access to its internal emails, citing “security risks”, before coming back a few hours later to this communication, which it describes as error. Susan Ariel Aaronson, a professor at George Washington University and expert in data governance and national security, Amazon may have feared app access to its employees' data over accusations of repeated property theft. Intellectual that the US government is doing to China. The company could also have been partly motivated by a desire not to offend the Trump administration, with which it conflicts. TikTok issues a statement claiming that the safety of its users is "of the utmost importance”, and that although concerns are still unclear, it is open to dialogue with Amazon.

US bank Wells Fargo says it has asked some employees who have installed the app on work phones to uninstall it, due to TikTok privacy and security controversies, and the fact that work phones should not be used at home other purposes.

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