TIkTok hired former China diplomat to decide on ban policies: FT

  • A former diplomat for the Chinese government was head of TikTok’s global content moderation team for two years, the Financial Times reported. 
  • Cai Zheng was a diplomat at the Chinese embassy in Iran prior to taking up the post at TikTok. 
  • The company has long maintained that Beijing influences its content moderation policy. The FT reported that Cai is not a Chinese Communist Part ideologue. 
  • Cai’s time at TikTok coincides with numerous instances of the suppression of topics such as LGBTQ issues, Tibetan independence and even users deemed too “ugly” to be seen on the main page. 
  • A TikTok spokesperson told Business Insider that Cai was not involved in devising its early policies but oversaw efforts to localize them internationally. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

TikTok hired a former Chinese diplomat to oversee its global content policy unit, which decided what content should be allowed on the short-form video app, according to the Financial Times (FT). 

Cai Zheng worked in China’s embassy in Iran for four years prior to taking up the role at TikTok, a post he held until early this year, the FT reported.

During his tenure, the company was criticized for restricting LGBT content in some countries, and also posts about Uighur Muslims,a minority group being monitored and incarcerated en masse in western China.

Cai was part of the company’s global trust and safety team in Beijing and wrote guidelines for what users can post on TikTok and other apps, two people close to the company told the FT.

His background will likely add to scrutiny of the relationship between TikTok and the Chinese authorities. The app, and its parent company ByteDance, have repeatedly denied that Beijing has influence over its content.

Sources close to the company argued that Cai’s role is not proof of closeness to Beijing, telling the FT that Cai is not a Communist Party ideologue.

A TikTok spokesperson, who declined to be named, told Business Insider that all of its Trust and Safety teams report to US-based leadership. 

There is no direct evidence that Cai influenced decisions on behalf of Beijing.

However, as Business Insider’s Alexandra Ma has reported, it is exceptionally difficult to run the content platform without the direct or indirect influence of the Chinese government.

A spokesperson for TikTok told Business Insider that Cai was not responsible for devising the platform’s early content policies but took a major role in the company’s efforts to localize them in 2018. This included “eliminating inappropriate legacy policies,” the spokesperson said. 

Local hubs were focused on ensuring policies “complement both local culture and context,” the spokesperson said. They added that TikTok works with local authorities to determine the policies.

Around the time of Cai’s departure, TikTok moved to further allow some of its larger markets to devise their own content policy decisions, the FT reported. 

In Cai’s time at the company, TikTok users have come up against several content decisions that drew criticism, including some related to localization.

In September 2019, The Guardian reported that the company banned LGBTQ content in countries considered to be morally conservative, such as Turkey.

TikTok said that at the time that the guidelines were no longer in use and that it had made “significant progress in establishing a more robust localized approach.”

Internal documents seen by the Guardian in September 2019 listed topics likely to anger the Chinese government, and said they were banned. They included discussion of the Tiananmen Square massacre or Tibetan independence.

The bans, which result in a video becoming only visible to the user who posted it, were enforced via broad categories such as “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country” or “highly controversial topics.” Other topics, such as spiritual belief system Falun Gong, resulted in an outright ban. 

At the time of the news, ByteDance released a statement saying these rules had been dropped since May 2019.

TikTok apologized in November that year for suspending the account of Feroza Aziz, an American teenager who posted criticisms of the Chinese government’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, disguised as a makeup tutorial. 

The company continued to receive criticism in March this year, when it emerged that in some markets the company had instructed moderators to suppress videos by users considered to be disabled, poor or ugly.

The policy was active as of late 2019, The Intercept reported. Following the revelations, TikTok said that the policy was no longer in place. 

The company has also seen increased scrutiny since the Trump administration announced, in July 2020, that it was considering banning the app, in moves stemming from President Donald Trump’s ongoing standoff with China.

Over the summer, however, ByteDance was ordered by the Trump administration to find a US buyer for its US assets.

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