„I think TikTok is stupid because it censors content.“ Until recently, such a sentence in a TikTok video could lead to a situation where it would never reach a large audience. The same was true for clips that contained a screenshot from a WhatsApp chat. Until at least September of this year, the video platform was demoting content that criticized the company or when somebody mentioned the name of a direct competitor of TikTok. This is documented by the moderation rules that netzpolitik.org was able to see.
For this research netzpolitik.org spoke with a source at TikTok, as well as examining moderation criteria and communications. In the article „TikTok: Cheerfulness and censorship“ we examined the moderation processes and the political implications of information control on the Chinese video platform. Now we focus on how the company has dealt with criticism and how it deals with its competitors (PDF).
Criticism of TikTok was unwelcome
One of the rules netzpolitik.org was able to see was „content depicting an attack on TikTok“. It said that „constructive criticism“ and „feedback“ were allowed. For content „attacking, condemning or criticizing TikTok“, the moderators were advised to mark the videos as „Not Recommend“. A classification of „Not Recommend“ greatly limits the possible viewership of a video. It then no longer appears in the algorithmically selected „For You“ feed, which the user sees when opening the app.
The rule included examples of unacceptable criticism for the orientation of the moderators. „Only idiots use this app“ was given as an example as well as: „This is the stupidest app I’ve ever seen“. The source at TikTok told us that even harmless sentences like „I don’t like TikTok anymore“ had led to content visibility being limited.
When asked when TikTok ceased using this rule, the TikTok press office provided a vague answer. In order to counteract misinformation, a restrictive, temporary approach was adopted „at the beginning“. At no time did this approach represent a long-term solution and the company no longer pursued it.
According to information available to netzpolitik.org, this rule applied in Germany until at least September 2019 and possibly beyond.
Mentioning the competition leads to throttling
Another moderation rule dealt with the „direct“ and „indirect“ competitors of TikTok, it was described with „content depicting promotion of competitors“. TikTok named Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Netflix as indirect competitors and as direct competitors: Triller, Dubsmash, Weishi, Kwai, Lasso, WhatsApp and Snapchat. But the rule did not have anything to do with promotion of competitors, but concerned all content in which a direct competitor was named.
Any content with a unique identifier of a direct competitor was to be classified as „Not Recommend“. Identifiers could include: a logo, the name as text, a screenshot or a user interface. The rule was also applied to indirect competitors if their logo or name could be seen in more than half of the video – even if the logo was intentionally obscured by the TikTok user. Videos explaining the functionalities of direct competitors were similarly demoted.
TikTok did not provide a response to netzpolitik.org on questions regarding this issue. Instead, the company sent a general statement that it was working on improving the moderation guidelines.
According to information available to netzpolitik.org, this rule was used until at least September of this year.
Deleting, demoting, pushing
The moderation rules divide disagreeable content into four categories, which limit the overall reach. If videos completely violate the requirements of the platform, they are deleted – „deletion“. Other content is marked as „Visible to self“. This means that a user can still see the video herself, but others no longer can. This is an even stronger restriction than „Not Recommend“ or „Not for Feed“, which excludes content from the main „For You“ feed. According to our source, this can disadvantage discoverability in the search function and hashtags.
- Featured: Pushed by marketing department
- General: Limited as „risk“ in certain markets
- Not recommend: Not in For You feed / can be shared in profile
- Not for Feed: Not in For You feed / disadvantages in search
- Visible to self: Only visible for user him/herself
- Deletion: Deletion of content
There are two levels for videos that are not generally restricted. Most of them are called „general“, but the source reports that the content can be regionally blocked or throttled by marking „Risks“. Moderation rules available to netzpolitik.org confirm this. Videos whose distribution the marketing department wants to increase can be pushed with the qualifier „Featured“.
TikTok confirmed to netzpolitik.org only the existence of „Deletion“, „Visible to self“ and „Risks“. The „Risks“ are necessary so that the videos do not violate local laws in certain countries.
No app has been downloaded as often as TikTok in the past year. The video sharing platform is growing rapidly. In November 2019, TikTok broke the 1 billion-user barrier – faster than any other social network ever before. The video app and its culture are currently so popular with children and young people that even the Tagesschau (the major German public TV News programme) now has its own account.
About this research and the sources
Our knowledge about the moderation at TikTok in Germany is based on several hours of conversation between netzpolitik.org and a source that has insight into the moderation structures and the policy. We checked the identity of the source and and their employment contract. We cannot and do not want to describe the source in more detail for reasons of whistleblower protection.
If you have any information or tips on this or other topics, we would be pleased to hear from you – encrypted if you like. Do not use professional e-mail addresses, telephone numbers, networks or devices for this purpose.