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TikTok banned LGBTQ+ content
Photography Denin Lawley, via Unsplash

TikTok censored LGBTQ+ content in some countries

The social media app’s local moderation rules reportedly blocked videos promoting gay rights in countries where homosexuality has never been illegal

Since its recent rise to popularity, TikTok has been heralded as a platform for positive social change (including protest organisation and minority representation) as well as an app for viral videos, challenges, and rising stars. However, a Guardian investigation has now revealed that TikTok’s moderation guidelines have resulted in pro-LGBTQ+ content being banned from the app.

In an effort to moderate content based on location, the social media platform ended up blocking any content regarded as promoting gay rights – including same-sex couples holding hands – even in countries where homosexuality has never been illegal.

As well as general moderation rules, TikTok has guidelines for countries with conservative moral codes, as well as codes for individual countries. Rules for more orthodox countries include strict restrictions about nudity and vulgarity: a ban on “partially naked buttocks”, exposed cleavage with “a length of more than one third of the whole cleavage length”, and extended footage of sanitary pads.

Rules for individual countries are more shocking. According to The Guardian, TikTok’s Turkey-specific guidelines ban content related to Kurdish separatism, and don’t allow users to criticise president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The rules also contain a whole section dedicated to censoring depictions of homosexuality. 

A list of banned LGBTQ+ content includes: “Intimate activities (holding hands, touching, kissing) between homosexual lovers”, “reports of homosexual groups, including news, characters, music, TV shows, pictures”, “protecting rights of homosexuals (parade, slogan)”, and “promotion of homosexuality”. Although there are some LGBTQ+ restrictions in the country, being gay is not illegal, meaning TikTok’s restrictions go beyond legal protection of users.

The revelation comes just days after the Chinese-owned app was exposed for censoring videos that may lead to criticism of China, including mention of Tiananmen Square (the site of the 1989 student-led protests), and Tibetan independence. ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, said these guidelines were retired in May and that the app now takes a “localised approach” – though given the revelations above, it seems these updated guidelines are more restrictive than before.

The platform denied this, explaining in a statement: “The referenced guidelines regarding LGBTQ+ content in Turkey are no longer in use, and we have since made significant progress in establishing a more robust localised approach.”

TikTok previously came under fire for its child safety policy, which erred on the side of risk when it came to sexualised content featuring children – meaning moderators were told to assume users were over 18 unless stated otherwise. The platform has since reversed this policy after backlash.

Social media sites often have strict (archaic) nudity policies, but it’s hugely concerning to think that a platform so popular with young people is hiding vital queer-positive content. While TikTok promises that the exposed guidelines have been retired, their new policies allow local moderators to “subjectively censor content”, which could still result in the unfair banning of LGBTQ+ videos.