Tiktok (formerly Musica.ly) is the massively popular, $75b social media sensation primarily used for short lip-sync clips with high-precision choreography and endlessly inventive special effects and video techniques.
But it's not without its problems: the company was censured and fined by the FTC for violating the privacy of its youngest users, and added insult to injury by summarily deleting those users' creations with little or no warning. It has also become a favored vehicle for Chinese state propaganda.
But despite that, the service's Chinese videos have become a vital and candid window onto the Chinese genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, especially among Uyghurs in exile, who rely on phones with Chinese SIMs to give them access to videos that hint at the extent of the abuses, from seemingly forced Uyghur-Han marriages to rare glimpses of their own stolen children in Chinese orphanages, chanting patriotic slogans.
Tiktok is coming under tighter Chinese state scrutiny though, driven in part by a drive to censor videos from the Hong Kong uprising, and a Guardian report on a leaked set of the company's internal censorship guidelines reveals that the company has instituted its own "shadowban," through which some controversial videos are silently made visible only to the person who posted them, as well as rules banning "criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc" and "demonisation or distortion of local or other countries' history such as May 1998 riots of Indonesia, Cambodian genocide, Tiananmen Square incidents" and "highly controversial topics, such as separatism, religion sects conflicts, conflicts between ethnic groups, for instance exaggerating the Islamic sects conflicts, inciting the independence of Northern Ireland, Republic of Chechnya, Tibet and Taiwan and exaggerating the ethnic conflict between black and white."
Also blocked for Chinese users on the service: memes about the "Momo" urban legend, as well as commentary on "Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung, Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Kim Jong-un, Shinzo Abe, Park Geun-Hee, Joko Widodo and Narendra Modi" (Xi Jinping is not on the list).
The guidelines also have a bizarre policy on the depiction of the sexual abuse of minors, dividing such images into "an infant or toddler, under one year old," "1-8 years old" and "any person less than 18 years old," with different guidelines for each (children who may be under 18 but may also be of age are presumed to be over 18).
Two months ago, a Uyghur exile escaped Xinjiang and arrived in the United States. She brought her Chinese phone with her—a precious commodity. Using her old phone and Chinese sim card, she now works alongside a group of Uyghur students to mine TikTok. Mehmet Jan, a student in the US, helps run the project. "I categorize the videos into four groups," he says, sorting them according to whether they show testimonials, surveillance, destruction of mosques, or cultural annihilation.
The group of students are intent on collecting proof of Xinjiang's gradual reprogramming into a state built in Beijing's image."This is no targeted response to violent extremism, but a concerted campaign to hollow out a whole culture," scholar Rachel Harris wrote in an article for The Guardian in April.
Footage of weddings between Uyghur women and Han Chinese men is a source of distress for Uyghurs in the diaspora, who see the videos as evidence of forced racial assimilation. According to a report by Radio Free Asia's Uyghur service, in 2017 the Xinjiang government introduced a "Uyghur-Han Marriage and Family Incentive Strategy," which offered 10,000 yuan ($1,400) to Uyghur and Han Chinese couples who intermarried.
TikTok—Yes, TikToK—Is the Latest Window Into China's Police State [Isobel Cockerell/Wired]
Revealed: how TikTok censors videos that do not please Beijing [Alex Hern/The Guardian]