- TikTok is being accused of censoring content worldwide, despite its past claims that it doesn’t.
- In a 75-page report, an Australian defense-ministry think tank claimed that LGTBQ+ issues, issues relating to U.S. protests, and criticisms of certain governments are all repressed on the platform.
- TikTok is accused of approaching censorship from a variety of angles, either by wholesale banning a phrase, or shadow banning the phrase behind certain languages.
- On top of this, TikTok’s sale to a U.S. company ran into a major speed bump after China made it clear that it ould block the sale over concerns about selling off artificial intelligence
TikTok Still Censoring?
A new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) accuses TikTok of continued censorship and shadow banning.
The platform has previously denied similar accusations of censorship, but this report details multiple methods the app allegedly used to restrict content, whether through blatantly banning certain phrases, to more subtly banning shadow banning other content.
For example, TikTok seems to be avoiding Thailand’s strict lèse-majesté laws that prohibit any speech that could possibly be negative about the monarchy. To that end, across the platform, #สมเด็จพระเจ้าลูกเธอเจ้าฟ้าสิริวัณณวรีนารีรัตนราชกัญญา (#PrincessSirivannavariNariratanaRajakanya) comes up empty.
Other hashtags, like #กษัตริย์มีไว้ทําไม (#WhyDoWeNeedAKing), were confirmed by Rogue Rocket to come up empty across the platform, despite it being widely popular with Thai activists on other platforms like Twitter.
The platform, in general, seems wary of laws that prohibit criticism of governments. Other than Thailand, Russia passed a controversial law in 2019 that also bans negative speech about the government. Despite this, #путинвор (“Putin is a thief”) is prevalent on Twitter. Twitter is still available in Russia, yet on TikTok, no results appear.
More Than Just Lèse-Majesté
This censorship isn’t just limited to TikTok trying to avoid running afoul of laws in certain countries. TikTok is also accused of censoring topics that are U.S.-based. For example, #acab (All Cops Are Bastards) was suppressed in the early days of the George Floyd protest. It wasn’t until May 29 that TikTok finally allowed protest-based content.
However, according to ASPI, #acab was censored again after more anti-racism and anti-police protests erupted in response to the situation in Kenosha. Although after checking the tag, Rogue Rocket found that it seems to work.
TikTok has also taken another approach to censoring content: by language. LGBTQ+ issues seem to be the issues primarily censored this way. This is in stark contrast to recent history, when TikTok seemingly reversed course and allowed LGBTQ+ content after a public outcry in 2019.
ASPI found that typing “gay” in other scripts, such as the cryllic scripts used by Russian, Ukrainian, and other former Soviet states, yields no easily accesible results.
The same is true when typing the word and other LGTBQ+ topics in Arabic, Estonian, and Bosnian, as well as other LGBTQ+ topics.
The report bashes TikTok for this approach in particular, because it doesn’t just affect people within countries that may have laws prohibiting this speech, but anyone in the world who speaks a particular language.
However, the reports does clarify that even though the tag “gay” can’t easily appear in search results, a motivated user could post their own video, use the tag, then click it to find videos with 130 million views.
When double-checking this, Rogue Rocket found that #гей works as any other uncensored tag would.
Among other things, ASPI also accuses TikTok of acting as a front for Chinese propaganda. Tags relating to Xinjiang and the malreatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government used to be censored as late as November 2019, but following a Vice Germany report, that decision was reversed.
The ASPI report found that as of early August 2020, there were 444 publicly visible videos using the tag #Xinjiang, but despite how controversial the situation is, only 5.6% of the videos were critical of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) policies.
The report states this is “an unusually small number, given the debate over the topic on other platforms. Of the top 20videos with the highest ranking on the hashtag, only one is critical of the CCP. Seven are either denialist videos or videos promoting conspiracy theories about Beijing’s extrajudicial incarceration of more than a million Uyghurs and members of other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.”
These issues also largely apply to WeChat, the Chinese messaging platform. Frankly, WeChat has been known to be censored worldwide and the app doesn’t really try to say otherwise, often warning users if they are breaking certain censorship rules.
Future of TikTok
This report likely won’t help TikTok gain much sympathy from the Trump administration and could be used by officials as further ‘proof’ that TikTok is dangerous, but TikTok might have bigger fish to fry.
During all of this, there is still TikTok’s lawsuit against President Donald Trump’s executive order which would ban it. There’s also the potential sale of many parts of the app to an American company in order to skirt US accusations that the app reports to CCP officials and overly tracks user data for the benefit of Chinese authorities. That last point actually ran into an issue recently.
Last week, China announced new export rules that would allow it to effectively block the sale of TikTok. The new rules are meant to protect Chinese artificial intelligence technology, and “cover such computing and data-processing technologies as text analysis, content recommendation, speech modeling and voice-recognition.”
“Content Recommendation” is extremely important to TikTok’s success, which features an algorithm that has been great at pushing forward fresh and relevant content to users.
The company may end up in a situation where it finds a U.S. buyer, but then the Chinese government and says “sorry, you can’t sell this tech to an American company.”
This isn’t completely unheard of. The U.S. government did something similar when it forced a Shanghai-based company to sell the U.S.-based Grindr.
See What Others Are Saying: (Wall Street Journal) (Bloomberg) (Business Insider)
FDA Recalls 11,000 Ice Cream Containers and Sportsmix Pet Food Products
- Over 11,000 cartons of Weis Markets ice cream were recalled after a customer discovered an “intact piece of metal equipment” inside a 48-ounce container of the brand’s Cookies and Cream flavor.
- The FDA also expanded a recall of Sportsmix pet food over concerns that the products may contain potentially fatal levels of aflatoxins.
- So far, more than 70 dogs have died and more than 80 pets have become sick after eating Sportsmix food. The agency recommends taking your pet to a veterinarian if they have eaten the recalled products, even if they aren’t showing symptoms.
Metal Pieces in Weis Ice Cream Cause Massive Recall
The Food and Drug Administration announced two major product recalls this week following serious consumer complaints.
The first came Sunday when the agency revealed that over 11,000 cartons of Weis Market ice cream were recalled. “The products may be contaminated with extraneous material, specifically metal filling equipment parts,” the FDA’s statement explained.
At least one customer discovered an “intact piece of metal equipment” inside a 48-ounce container of the brand’s Cookies and Cream flavor.
Those containers were available in 197 Weis Market grocery stores, but they have already been pulled from shelves. The products have a sell-by date of October 21, 2020, and customers who purchased the product can return it for a full refund.
Along with removing 10,869 units of the Cookies and Cream containers, the brand also recalled 502 3-gallon bulk containers of Klein’s Vanilla Dairy Ice Cream.
Those bulk containers were not for retail sale, but were instead sold to one retail establishment in New York and have since been removed.
Sportsmix Recall Follows 70 Pet Deaths, 80 Illnesses
The second major recall came Tuesday when the FDA expanded a recall of Sportmix dog food.
According to the agency, the product may contain potentially fatal levels of aflatoxins – toxins produced by the Aspergillus flavus mold, which can grow on corn and other grains used as ingredients in pet food.
As of Tuesday, more than 70 pets have died and more than 80 have gotten sick after eating Sportsmix pet food. Not all the cases have been officially confirmed as aflatoxin poisoning at this time. This count also may not reflect the total number of pets affected.
For now, the FDA is asking pet owners and veterinary professionals to stop using the impacted Sportsmix products that have an expiration date on or before July 9, 2022, and have “05” in the date or lot code.
Pets experiencing aflatoxin poisoning may have symptoms like sluggishness, loss of appetite, vomiting, jaundice, and/or diarrhea. In some cases, this toxicity can cause long-term liver issues without showing any symptoms. Because of this, pet owners are being advised to take their animals to a veterinarian if they have eaten the recalled products, even if they aren’t showing symptoms.
There is currently no evidence that pet owners who have handled the affected food are at risk of aflatoxin poisoning. Still, the FDA recommends that wash your hands after handling pet food.
Signal and Telegram Downloads Surge After WhatsApp Announces It Will Share Data With Facebook
- Downloads for Signal and Telegram have skyrocketed in the last week, with the encrypted messaging apps boasting 7.5 million and 9 million new followers, respectively.
- The growth comes after WhatsApp said it will require almost all users to share personal data with its parent company Facebook.
- It also comes after Parler’s shutdown and bans against President Trump from Twitter and Facebook, which prompted his supporters to turn specifically to Telegram.
Telegram and Signal See Big Boost
Downloads for the encrypted messaging apps Signal and Telegram have surged in the last week after WhatsApp announced that it will start forcing all users outside the E.U. and U.K. to share personal data with Facebook.
Last week, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, told users that they must allow Facebook and its subsidiaries to collect their phone numbers, locations, and the phone numbers of their contacts, among other things.
Anyone who does not agree to the new terms by Feb. 8 will lose access to the messaging app. The move prompted many to call for people to delete WhatsApp and start using other services like Signal or Telegram.
Now, it appears those calls to use other encrypted messaging apps have been heard. According to data from app analytics firm Sensor Tower, Signal saw 7.5 million installs globally through the App Store and Google Play from Jan. 6 to Jan. 10 alone, marking a 4,200% increase from the previous week.
Meanwhile, Telegram saw even more downloads. During the same time, it gained 9 million users, up 91% from the previous week. It was also the most downloaded app in the U.S.
WhatsApp responded to the exodus by attempting to clarify its new policy in a statement Monday.
“We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way,” the company said. “Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.”
Other Causes of App Growth
Notably, some of the spikes in the Telegram downloads, specifically, also come from many supporters of President Donald Trump flocking to alternative platforms after Parler was shut down and Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook.
Far-right chat room membership on the platform has increased significantly in recent days, NBC News reported. Conversations in pre-existing chatrooms where white supremacist content has already been shared for months has also increased since the pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last week.
According to the outlet, many of the president’s supporters have moved their operations to the app in large part because it has very lax community guidelines. Companies like Facebook and Twitter have recently cracked down on groups and users sharing incendiary content, known conspiracy theories, and attempting to organize events that could lead to violence.
There have been several documented instances of Trump supporters now using Telegram channels to discuss planned events and urge acts of direct violence. Per NBC, in one channel named “fascist,” users have called on others to “shoot politicians” and “encourage armed struggle.” A post explaining how to radicalize Trump supporters to become neo-Nazis also made rounds on the “fascist” channel, among others.
Membership one channel frequently used by members of the Proud Boys has grown by more than 10,000 in recent days, seeming to directly attract users from Parler.
“Now that they forced us off the main platforms it doesn’t mean we go away, it just means we are going to go to places they don’t see,” a user posted in the chatroom, according to NBC.
See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Business Insider) (CNBC)
Pornhub Removes All Unverified User Uploads, Taking Down Most of Its Videos
- Pornhub is now removing all videos that were not uploaded by verified users.
- Before the massive purge, the site hosted around 13.5 million videos. As of Monday morning, there were only 2.9 million videos left.
- The move is part of a series of sweeping changes the company made days after The New York Times published a shocking op-ed detailing numerous instances of abuse on the site, including nonconsensual uploads of underage girls.
- Following the article, numerous businesses cut ties with the company, including Mastercard and Visa, which both announced Thursday that they will not process any payments on the site.
Pornhub Purges Videos
Pornhub removed the vast majority of its existing videos Monday, just hours after the company announced that it would take down all existing videos uploaded by non-verified users.
According to reports, before the new move was announced Sunday night, Pornhub hosted about 13.5 million videos, according to the number displayed on the site’s search bar. As of writing, that search bar shows just over 2.9 million videos.
The decision comes less than a week after the company announced it would only allow video uploads from content partners and members of its Model program.
At the time, Pornhub claimed it made the decision following an independent review launched in April to eliminate illegal content. However, many speculated that it was actually in large part due to an op-ed published in The New York Times just days before. That piece, among other things, found that the site had been hosting videos of young girls uploaded without their consent, including some content where minors were raped or assaulted.
The article prompted a wave of backlash against Pornhub and calls for other businesses to cut ties with the company. On Thursday, both Visa and Mastercard announced that they would stop processing all payments on the site.
“Our investigation over the past several days has confirmed violations of our standards prohibiting unlawful content on their site,” Mastercard said in a statement.
Less than an hour later, Visa tweeted that it would also be suspending payments while it completed its own investigation.
Pornhub Claims It’s Being Targeted
However, in its blogpost announcing the most recent decision, Pornhub claimed that it was being unfairly targeted.
Specifically, the company noted that Facebook’s own transparency report found 84 million instances of child sexual abuse content over the last three years. By contrast, a report by the third-party Internet Watch Foundation found 118 similar instances on Pornhub in the same time period.
Notably, the author of The Times report, Nicholas Krisof, specifically said the Internet Watch Foundation’s findings represented a massive undercount, and that he was able to find hundreds of these kinds of videos on Pornhub in just half an hour.
Still, the site used the disputed numbers to point a finger at others.
“It is clear that Pornhub is being targeted not because of our policies and how we compare to our peers, but because we are an adult content platform,” the statement continued.
“Every piece of Pornhub content is from verified uploaders, a requirement that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter have yet to institute,” the company added.
However, Pornhub’s implication that it is somehow more responsible because it only let verified users post content is a highly impractical comparison. First of all, Pornhub is a platform created exclusively for porn, content the social media companies the company name-checked explicitly prohibit.
Second of all, and the vast majority of people who use those platforms are not verified, and it would be impossible for a company like Facebook or YouTube to limit content to only verified users without entirely undermining their own purposes.
Even beyond that, there are also still questions about Pornhub’s verification process. According to their site, all someone needs to do to become verified is to simply have a Pornhub account with an avatar and then upload a selfie of themselves holding a piece of paper with their username and Pornhub.com written on it.
While the company did tell reporters the process would be made more thorough sometime next year, they did not provide any specific details, prompting questions about exhaustive the verification process will ultimately be.
That question is highly important because, at least per its current policies, the verification process makes it so users are eligible to monetize their videos as part of the ModelHub program.
If the new verification process is still weak or has loopholes, people could easily slip through the cracks and continue to profit. However, on the other side, there are also big concerns among sex-workers that if the process is too limited, they will be able to make money on the platform.
That concern has already been exacerbated by some of the other actions taken since The Times article was published. For example, after Mastercard and Visa made their announcements, numerous sex workers and activists condemned the decision, saying it would seriously hurt how porn performers collect income — not just on Pornbub, but on other platforms as well.
“By targeting Pornhub and successfully destroying the ability for independent creators to monetize their content, they have made it easier to remove payment options from smaller platforms too,” model Avalon Fey told Motherboard last week. “This has nothing to do with helping abused victims, and everything to do with hurting online adult entertainers to stop them from creating and sharing adult content.”
Other performers also expressed similar concerns that the move could spillover to smaller platforms.
“I am watching to see if my OnlyFans will be their next target and sincerely hoping not,” amateur performer Dylan Thomas also told the outlet.
“Sex workers are scared by this change, despite not having uploaded any illegal content,” Fey continued, “because we have seen these patterns before and have had sites and payment processors permanently and unexpectedly shut down.”