The Chinese company behind popular viral video app TikTok has apologised to a US teenager and blamed a “human moderation error” after it temporarily took down a viral video that criticised Beijing’s treatment of China’s Muslim population.
The video, uploaded to the platform by 17-year-old Feroza Aziz on November 23, initially focuses on eyelash curling tips before moving on to the repression of Uighur Muslims in China’s western Xinjiang region. TikTok removed the clip four days later and blocked Ms Aziz’s account, raising concerns the company was censoring politically sensitive content.
“Humans will sometimes make mistakes, such as the one made . . . in the case of @getmefamouspartthree’s video,” said Eric Han, head of safety at TikTok US, in a blog post on Thursday, referring to Ms Aziz’s TikTok handle.
Mr Han said the video was removed for only 50 minutes “due to a human moderation error” and was reposted after a “senior member of our moderation team identified the error”.
TikTok said the suspension of Ms Aziz’s account was triggered by an earlier video that featured a photo of Osama bin Laden, adding the company was reviewing its processes.
Content moderation is a problem faced by all social media platforms. TikTok, however, has faced additional scrutiny because it is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, prompting fears that it censors at Beijing’s behest.
In China, TikTok’s sister app Douyin is heavily censored for political content, with more than 10,000 employees policing videos posted on the platform. TikTok is only accessible to users outside China, and hosts separate video content to Douyin.
ByteDance has come under scrutiny in the US, with lawmakers pushing the Treasury department to review the company’s 2017 $800m acquisition of Musical.ly, the lip-syncing music video app. The purchase helped paved the way for TikTok’s explosive growth but has sparked fears it would apply Beijing-style censorship outside China.
Marco Rubio, the US senator who has been a leading critic of the deal, said on Twitter the incident involving Ms Aziz demonstrated “how China exports its censorship to America”.
A TikTok spokesperson told the Financial Times: “TikTok doesn’t limit political content except in extreme cases such as hate speech.”
But Ms Aziz posted a sceptical response after the apology. “Do I believe they took it away because of an unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uighurs? No,” she wrote on Twitter.