‘Sensitive words’: TikTok’s parent company monitors what is said about China, Trump and even the Uyghurs

Photo illustration with Chinese flags and the TikTok logo. July 16, 2020 (REUTERS/Florence Lo) (Florence Lo/)

bytedancethe parent company of TikTokmaintains a library with vocabulary lists that dictate what users of their platforms can and cannot see. This is a common practice in many social networking companies, which use this method to, among other things, avoid hateful or offensive language, or prevent terrorism or child pornography. But this case is different.

As revealed by an investigation Forbes, Internal company records show that ByteDance staff monitor and sometimes suppress posts about the Chinese regime, former US President Donald Trump or the Uyghur minority ethnic group, persecuted by the Xi Jinping regime, among other topics.

The lists in the ByteDance tool that tracks these words have titles like the following, you may have learned Forbes:

“Forbidden words directed at Trump”

“Forbidden words directed by Putin”

“Special words forbidden for Xi and Peng”

“Delicate Words in Douyin Videos in Xinjiang”

“Theming strategies of Uyghur-Han couples”

“Thematic Strategy for China’s Strategic Policy”

“Local Life: Taiwan and Hong Kong Independence”

“YouTube Home Surveillance”

There is an internal guide written by China-based ByteDance staff that describes your “global core vocabulary” of “common high-risk sensitive words”as well as its “globally commonly used thesaurus” containing “fully classified” illegal vocabulary.

This document, to which the US media had access, says that the system was created in 2017 to help detect, evaluate, and remember these words in ByteDance products because “they can create risks to the security, reputation, and revenue of the company.” company”.

Forbes found more than 50 listings on the ByteDance tool with the word “TikTok” or “US” in the title, and internal materials show company employees accessed the tool on the last year. Other lists mention TikTok’s Chinese counterpart, Douyin.

Protesters gather outside the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, Ontario, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. Parliament is expected to vote on an opposition motion calling on Canada to recognize China's actions against ethnic Muslim Uighurs as genocide.  (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP)
They monitor all content related to Uyghurs (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press via AP) (Adrian Wyld/)

In response to this report from Forbesthe spokesperson for TikTok, Jamie Favazza, suggested that the lengthy materials could be “significantly out of date or incomplete” and said none of the identified word lists are currently or have ever been used on TikTok. Asked why these lists have “TikTok” or “USA” in their names if they were never used on the platform, Favazza said: “I cannot speculate on the titles of the list” without seeing the documents.

TikTok and Douyin are different apps, in different markets, with separate content and source code policies,” it said in a statement. “These apps use separate keyword platforms and keyword lists that are managed by separate teams.” But experts told Forbes that it is almost impossible to guarantee that Douyin restrictive settings are turned off for TikTok.

the spokeswoman Jennifer Banks said that “Jiyun Hudong, which is a subsidiary of Douyin Information Service Co., Ltd., manages the operations related to content moderation for our China platforms, including Douyin. Teams managing moderation for China-only platforms and non-China platforms are different and separateemployed by different entities and have separate tools for moderation.”

But according to several current and former TikTok and ByteDance employees, any alleged split between the two companies is largely cosmetic. The truth is that hundreds of documents reviewed by Forbes M.They show a lack of internal functional separation in access to information, user data and tools, including their keyword systems.

A report of Citizen Lab of 2021 also found that TikTok and Douyin “share many parts of their source code”, built on a common foundation and modified according to the market.

Records show that moderation tools and other internal programs also collect data on the “hit rate” of sensitive words, including information about the US users who post them. The Chinese regime has used social media to attack people in the US who have spoken out online against the Chinese Communist Party, including while commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

This is how Shou Zi Chew testified (REUTERS / Evelyn Hockstein)
This is how Shou Zi Chew testified (REUTERS / Evelyn Hockstein) (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN /)

This revelation comes a month after the CEO of TikTok, Shou Zi Chew, will testify for the first time before the US Congress, where he assured: “We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government. It is our commitment… that we will keep this free from any manipulation by any government.”

A guide to the tool describes its “core vocabulary” which includes language such as “six four words,” an apparent reference to 4/6 or June 4, the date of the 1989 violence in Tiananmen Square. Other lists in the tool are related to geopolitical issues such as the war between Ukraine and Russia, the debate surrounding Taiwan and Hong Kong, and references to Tibet and the Uyghur minority, victims of genocide by the Chinese regime.

Access to the ByteDance tool and the materials contained within it appeared to be tightly controlled by nearly two dozen ByteDance and Jiyun Hudong employees in China, according to the guide. “The glossary is confidential information and there is a risk of leakage.”

The problem with this monitoring has to do with the relationship between ByteDance and the Chinese regime. as he told Forbes william evanina, former head of US government counterintelligence, “the difference is the fundamental issue that ByteDance is subservient to the government and the Ministry of State Security. Yes, Facebook and Google do the same to protect their global assets on their platforms, but they are not beholden to the CIA or NSA. And the NSA and CIA are not giving Facebook this book.”

“This word list is proof positive that there are specific things they care about and want to monitor who said them, when and how often,” Evanina said of the tool.

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