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TikTok censorship
Photography Tom Sodoge, via Unsplash

TikTok censored posts by users deemed ‘ugly’, poor, or disabled

A newly-exposed document has revealed that the app asked moderators to punish certain people by narrowing their audiences

The creators of video sharing platform TikTok instructed the app’s moderators to suppress posts created by users it deemed “ugly”, poor, or disabled.

According to documents obtained by The Intercept – which build on last year’s revelations by German site Netzpolitik – the Chinese-owned app blocked videos showing rural poverty, slums, “beer bellies”, and crooked smiles. One document even reportedly reveals that the app scanned uploads for cracked walls and “disreputable decorations” in user’s homes – if spotted, these users would have their audiences narrowed by TikTok.

Moderators were also told to censor political speech in livestreams, banning those who criticised “national honour” or “state organs such as police” – the app describes this as “ideologically undesirable content”.

Speaking to The Intercept, Josh Gartner, a TikTok spokesperson, said that “most of” the livestream guidelines “are either no longer in use, or in some cases appear to never have been in place”, though wouldn’t provide more specific information. Referencing the suppression of “ugly”, poor, or disabled users, Gartner explained 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”.

Although, according to The Intercept, sources suggest that both policies were in use late last year, with the livestream rule only created in 2019. The “preventing bullying” guidelines also make no mention of bullying, instead offering a justification of attracting users, not protecting them. The document says: “If the character’s appearance or the shooting environment is not good, the video will be much less attractive, not worthing (sic) to be recommended to new users.”

To remain an “aspirational” platform, moderators were told to suppress uploads from users with “abnormal body shape”, “ugly facial looks”, dwarfism, an “obvious beer belly”, “too many wrinkles”, “eye disorders”, and other “low quality” traits. Videos shot in “shabby and dilapidated” environments were hidden from new users, and when the house had “no obvious slummy” characteristics, moderators had to look for cracks on the wall, or “old and disreputable decorations” to determined whether the video would be censored. 

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based company ByteDance, which has come under scrutiny by the US government in recent years over its ties to the Chinese Communist Party. The new revelations aren’t the first time the app has been criticised for its strict censorship. In September 2019, it was revealed that TikTok censored LGBTQ+ content in certain countries, blocking videos promoting gay rights in places where homosexuality has never been illegal. The following month, the app was forced to apologise after banning a 17-year-old from the platform after she criticised China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims.

Although a number of users have been blocked without warning, most ‘rule breakers’ won’t ever receive a proper explanation for their punishment, owing to the fact that TikTok’s keeps its rules carefully hidden from the public.