Technology & Science·Analysis

TikTok apologizes to teen kicked off platform after criticizing China but can't shake censorship suspicions

Teenager Feroza Aziz claims her criticism of China got her temporarily kicked off TikTok. The video-sharing app's latest controversy serves as more proof the company cannot dispel the cloud of suspicion that follows it and other Chinese-owned technology marketed toward the West.

Removal and reinstatement of teen's Uighur video further stokes concerns about popular platform

Chinese-owned TikTok has responded to criticism of censorship by saying that it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and 'would not do so if asked.' (Postmodern Studio/Shutterstock)

Ever seen that one of Osama bin Laden singing Poker Face? No, really. 

It's a legitimate question for the users of TikTok, the popular video-sharing app where an old clip has been uploaded of someone dressed convincingly like the late al-Qaeda leader performing the Lady Gaga hit.

As bizarre as that clip may be, it's suddenly of interest because of the controversy surrounding another video posted by an American teenager — one that she says was temporarily made unavailable by TikTok for political reasons.

The latest TikTok row serves as more proof the company cannot dispel the cloud of suspicion that follows it and other Chinese-owned technology marketed toward the West (think Huawei).

This week's controversy started after Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim girl from New Jersey, began racking up millions of views for a political statement disguised as a makeup tutorial.

In the video, first posted to TikTok, then shared on Twitter and beyond, Aziz says she's about to teach viewers "how to get long lashes."

But nine seconds into the 40-second clip, while holding a pink eyelash curler, she launches into a calm-voiced tirade about China's internment of the Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority group whose plight was recently highlighted in a trove of secret government documents leaked to international media.

Aziz calls the facilities where hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are believed to have been detained and forced to undergo state-sanctioned indoctrination "concentration camps" and urges users to research the subject online.

"This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it," she says.

Earlier this week, a consortium of journalists, including from CBC News, reported on the leaked documents, which shed light on the extent of Beijing's repression and worldwide tracking of Uighurs, who live primarily in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang.

Questions about Chinese law

There's been growing suspicion and accusations that TikTok's Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance, censors content on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party, including topics such as the Tiananmen Square massacre or the recent unrest in Hong Kong.

Chinese law means citizens can be called upon at any moment to help with "national intelligence work," and observers in the West take that law to mean the government looms large over any private company based in China.

Aziz tweeted Wednesday evening that it wasn't the first time her attempts to speak out about what she describes as a Uighur genocide had been silenced on TikTok, one of the world's fastest-growing apps.

For TikTok's critics, her experience appeared to be the platform's clearest case yet of Chinese censorship.

Moderation error

On Monday, Aziz tweeted she had been temporarily blocked from posting on TikTok and later said the viral Uighur video had been taken down.

TikTok said Wednesday evening that the video was inadvertently removed because of a "human moderation error." The company said it was reinstated less than an hour later, when another staffer caught the mistake.

"It's important to clarify that nothing in our community guidelines precludes content such as this video, and it should not have been removed," TikTok said in a statement.

TikTok, where users post short videos, often centred around comedy, music, dancing or memes, has proved wildly popular this year. It is now one of the world's fastest-growing apps. (AFP via Getty Images)

Aziz called the reappearance of the clip "very suspicious," but TikTok traced the source of the problem back to entirely different video Aziz had posted to a different account.

According to a timeline put out by the company, an old account belonging to Aziz had been suspended earlier this month because a video posted by that account included an image of bin Laden that violated the company's rules about terrorism-related content.

Aziz said that video — a take on a meme about first crushes — was just "dark humour."

TikTok said Aziz was locked out of her new account — where the Uighur video was uploaded and viewed more than 1.5 million times — because the device she used to set it up was the same one as she used for the older account. It was flagged Monday during a scheduled platform-wide sweep by the moderation team that saw more than 2,400 devices associated with banned accounts blocked.

The company apologized to Aziz and said it would override her device ban.

On Twitter, Aziz rejected TikTok's explanation: "Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No."

Other posts on TikTok have featured spoofs of bin Laden, including that Poker Face video, and remain up.

TikTok denies state interference

Given the nature of the details highlighted in the leaked documents, it's reasonable to suspect China doesn't want the wider world to know about what is taking place inside the Uighur internment camps.

But does Beijing really care about what's on the teen-minded, outwardly fun-centric TikTok? The company said in an earlier statement it has never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and "would not do so if asked."

But it's a difficult time to make that case. Suspicion of Chinese technology runs to the top levels of Western governments.

American authorities have reportedly launched a national security review of ByteDance's 2017 takeover of social media service Musical.ly, which was absorbed into TikTok. 

"TikTok is a potential counterintelligence threat we cannot ignore," two U.S. senators said.

Broader suspicions

And it's not just TikTok.

The Trump administration blacklisted Huawei on national security grounds, suspecting its equipment could be used for spying. Canada and the U.K. still aren't sure whether to allow the telecom supplier into their respective 5G wireless networks. Australia has already said it won't.

There's also the case of Grindr. The gay dating app's Chinese owners are looking for a new buyer after they were suspected of mishandling sensitive user data — including users' HIV status.

For TikTok, it's hard to see a way out of this broader trend of growing suspicion. The U.S. investigation might provide clarity as to whether some concerns are warranted.

The app's more than a billion active users, many of them teens (possibly younger), are reason enough to want to know whether the suspicion is warranted.

The CBC News series China's Power explores China's expanding influence around the world and how Canada and other countries are contending with the new superpower. Read the stories in the series:

About the Author

Thomas Daigle

Senior Technology Reporter

While in CBC's London, U.K. bureau, Thomas reported on everything from the Royal Family and European politics to terrorism. He filed stories from Quebec for several years and reported for Radio-Canada in his native New Brunswick. Thomas is now based in Toronto and focuses on technology-related news. He can be reached by email at thomas.daigle@cbc.ca.

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