The TikTok logo icon is often used to accuse Beijing of tyranny. During the Trump and Biden administrations, TikTok faced U.S. bans or restrictions due to concerns that China could use it to propagandize Americans. In August, Pew Research conducted a survey of American teenagers ages 13 to 17 and found that TikTok has rocketed in popularity since its North American debut several years ago and is now a top social media platform for teens among the platforms covered in this survey. Western media have claimed that the Chinese government is censoring TikTok to ban content that threatens national security and the internal order, and the Guardian warned in late 2019 that TikTok instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or Falun Gong.
To keep access to hundreds of millions of Americans, TikTok has been making major concessions to appease the Pentagon, CIA, and FBI, including an agreement with Oracle Corp. to store users’ data in the US and a USDS division. China, Iran, and Russia use censorship compliance as a condition for U.S. internet companies to operate in their countries, as they fear that American tech companies will be used to propagandize and destabilize their populations and countries. On Monday night, System Update’s opening monologue showed how mainstream Western media coverage of Ukraine and President Zelensky changed after Russia invaded in February.
The video excerpt, posted to all social media sites, including TikTok, was a true and benign review of how media outlets, including The Guardian, had previously portrayed Zelensky as corrupt and wealthy. It was critical of how mainstream Western news outlets had warned that the Ukrainian military was dominated by a neo-Nazi group called the Azov Battalion, that the Kiev-based government was becoming increasingly repressive and anti-democratic, and that Zelensky himself was supported by a single Ukrainian oligarch and had massive offshore accounts of hidden wealth. TikTok notified us that a System Update video was removed for violating platform rules on December 28, 2022. TikTok is a Chinese platform that has supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has no interest in prohibiting criticism of President Zelensky.
TikTok warned us that our account is at high risk of being restricted based on our violation history and that the next violation could result in being prevented from accessing some feature. It is unclear why AI “content moderation” would be geared toward finding and banning derogatory claims about the Ukrainian president, as it would make more sense from Meta and Google, whose censorship regime usually supports the U.S. Security State. Big Tech immediately followed the Ukraine war by engaging in all kinds of censorship demanded by U.S.-backed foreign policy goals, including allowing praise of the Azov Battalion, which was banned before the invasion due to the widespread belief that Azov is a neo-Nazi group. Vox wrote that Big Tech has taken a side after Russia invaded Ukraine, with Google, Meta, TikTok, and all other consumer tech companies supporting Ukraine. However, since the invasion, Big Tech has been accused of censoring dissent about the Ukraine war. The EU passed one of the most chilling censorship laws in years, making it illegal for any platform to air Russian-state media, including RT and Sputnik, even if the owners and managers of those platforms want to air them.
Search engines like Google and TikTok have also been accused of banning dissent, with TikTok’s censorship regime and who controls it making no sense. The U.S. government wants Zelensky criticism banned, but China does not. Our Monday night monologue focused on how Western media criticism of Zelensky went from widespread to banned after the invasion. TikTok, a popular social media platform, banned our video for criticizing Zelensky, providing the clearest and most compelling example of that statement. AI programs and low-level moderators often make censorship mistakes, but what is most notable is that TikTok’s Chinese owners have now agreed to make “content moderation” decisions for the platform, placing it in the same category as Google, Meta, and Apple. This is ironic, as for years, American officials and their media allies have criticized the Russian, Chinese, and Iranian governments for requiring American big tech firms to censor dangerous content in their countries. TikTok censorship, without much debate, is now threatened on one of the world’s fastest-growing social media platforms.