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Australian Think Tank Accuses TikTok of Wide-Scale Censorship in New Report

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  • 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.

Source: ASPI ICPC pg. 10

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.

Screenshot taken September 9, 2020

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.”

ASPI figure detailing the breakdown of the top 100 #Xinjiang videos.

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)

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Meta Reinstates Trump on Facebook and Instagram

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The company, which banned the former president two years ago for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, now says the risk to public safety has “sufficiently receded.” 


Meta Ends Suspension

Meta announced Wednesday that it will reinstate the Facebook and Instagram accounts of former President Donald Trump, just two years after he was banned for using the platforms to incite a violent insurrection.

In a blog post, the company said the suspensions would be lifted “in the coming weeks” but with “new guardrails in place to deter repeat offenses.”

Specifically, Meta stated that due to Trump’s violations of its Community Standards, he will face “heightened penalties for repeat offenses” under new protocols for “public figures whose accounts are reinstated from suspensions related to civil unrest.”

“In the event that Mr. Trump posts further violating content, the content will be removed and he will be suspended for between one month and two years, depending on the severity of the violation,” the blog post continued.

The company also noted its updated protocols address content that doesn’t violate its Community Standards but “contributes to the sort of risk that materialized on January 6, such as content that delegitimizes an upcoming election or is related to QAnon.”

However, unlike direct violations, that content would have its distribution limited, but it would not be taken down. As a penalty for repeat offenses, Meta says it “may temporarily restrict access to […] advertising tools.”

As far as why the company is doing this, it explained that it assessed whether or not to extend the “unprecedented” two-year suspension it placed on Trump back in January of 2021 and determined that the risk to public safety had “sufficiently receded.”

Meta also argued that social media is “rooted in the belief that open debate and the free flow of ideas are important values” and it does not want to “get in the way of open, public and democratic debate.”

“The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box,” the tech giant added.

Response

Meta’s decision prompted widespread backlash from many people who argue the former president has clearly not learned from the past because he continues to share lies about the election, conspiracy theories, and other incendiary language on Truth Social.

“Trump incited an insurrection. And tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Ca.) tweeted. “He’s shown no remorse. No contrition. Giving him back access to a social media platform to spread his lies and demagoguery is dangerous. @facebook caved, giving him a platform to do more harm.”

According to estimates last month by the advocacy groups Accountable Tech and Media Matters for America, over 350 of Trump’s posts on the platform would have explicitly violated Facebook’s policies against QAnon content, election claims, and harassment of marginalized groups.

“Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to reinstate Trump’s accounts is a prime example of putting profits above people’s safety,”  NAACP President Derrick Johnson told NPR

“It’s quite astonishing that one can spew hatred, fuel conspiracies, and incite a violent insurrection at our nation’s Capitol building, and Mark Zuckerberg still believes that is not enough to remove someone from his platforms.”

However, on the other side, many conservatives and Trump supporters have cheered the move as a win for free speech.

Others, like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Oh.) also asserted that Trump “shouldn’t have been banned in the first place. Can’t happen again.”

Trump himself echoed that point on in a post on Truth Social, where he claimed Facebook has lost billions of dollars both removing and reinstating him.

Such a thing should never again happen to a sitting President, or anybody else who is not deserving of retribution! THANK YOU TO TRUTH SOCIAL FOR DOING SUCH AN INCREDIBLE JOB. YOUR GROWTH IS OUTSTANDING, AND FUTURE UNLIMITED!!!” he continued. 

The question that remains, however, is whether Trump will actually go back to Facebook or Instagram. As many have noted, the two were never his main platforms. Twitter was always been his preferred outlet, and while Elon Musk reinstated his account some time ago, he has not been posting on the site.

There is also the question of how Truth Social — which Trump created and put millions of dollars into — would survive if he went back to Meta’s platforms. The company is already struggling financially, and as Axios notes, if Trump moves back, it signals to investors that he is not confident in the company.

On the other hand, Trump’s lawyers formally petitioned Meta to reinstate him, which could indicate that this goes beyond just a symbolic win and is something he actually wants. Additionally, if he were to start engaging on Facebook and Instagram again, it would immediately give him access to his over 57 million followers across the two platforms while he continues his 2024 presidential campaign.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (Axios) (The New York Times)

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Meta Encouraged to Change Nudity Policy in Potential Win For Free The Nipple Movement

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The company’s oversight board said Meta’s current rules are too confusing to follow, and new guidelines should be developed to “respect international human rights standards.”


Rules Based in “A Binary View of Gender”

In a move many have described as a big step for Free The Nipple advocates, Meta’s oversight board released a decision Tuesday encouraging the company to modify its nudity and sexual activity policies so that social media users are treated “without discrimination on the basis of sex or gender.”

The board—which consists of lawyers, journalists, and academics—said the parent company of Facebook and Instagram should change its guidelines “so that it is governed by clear criteria that respect international human rights standards.”

Its decision came after a transgender and nonbinary couple had two different posts removed for alleged violations of Meta’s Sexual Solicitation Community Standard. Both posts included images of the couple bare-chested with their nipples covered along with captions discussing transgender healthcare, as they were fundraising for one of them to undergo top surgery.

Both posts, one from 2021 and another from 2022, were taken down after users reported it and Meta’s own automated system flagged it. The posts were restored after an appeal, but the oversight board stated that their initial removal highlights faults in the company’s policies. 

“Removing these posts is not in line with Meta’s Community Standards, values or human rights responsibilities,” the board said in its decision, 

According to the board, Meta’s sexual solicitation policy is too broad and creates confusion for social media users. The board also said the policy is “based on a binary view of gender and a distinction between male and female bodies.

“Such an approach makes it unclear how the rules apply to intersex, non-binary and transgender people, and requires reviewers to make rapid and subjective assessments of sex and gender, which is not practical when moderating content at scale,” the decision continued. 

Free the Nipple Movement

The board stated that the rules get especially confusing regarding female nipples, “particularly as they apply to transgender and non-binary people.”

While there are exceptions to Meta’s rules, including posts in medical or health contexts, the board said that these exceptions are “often convoluted and poorly defined.” 

“The lack of clarity inherent in this policy creates uncertainty for users and reviewers, and makes it unworkable in practice,” the decision said. 

The board’s recommended that Meta change how it manages nudity on its platforms. The group also requested that Meta provide more details regarding what content specifically violates its Sexual Solicitation Community Standard. 

For over a decade, Meta’s nudity policies have been condemned by many activists and users for strictly censoring female bodies. The Free the Nipple movement was created to combat rules that prevent users from sharing images of a bare female chest, but still allow men to freely post topless photos of themselves. 

Big names including Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, and Florence Pugh have advocated for Free the Nipple.
Meta now has 60 days to respond to the board’s recommendations. In a statement to the New York Post, a spokesperson for the company said Meta is “constantly evaluating our policies to help make our platforms safer for everyone.”

See What Others Are Saying: (Mashable) (The New York Post) (Oversight Committee Decision)

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Amazon Labor Union Receives Official Union Certification

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The company already plans to appeal the decision.


Amazon Labor Union’s Victory 

The National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday certified the Amazon Labor Union (ALU) Staten Island election from April, despite Amazon’s objections. 

After Staten Island staffers won the vote to unionize by 500 votes in the spring of 2022, Amazon quickly filed a slew of objections, claiming that the ALU had improperly influenced the election. Amazon pushed for the results to be overturned. 

Now, the National Labor Relations Board has dismissed Amazon’s allegations and certified the election. This certification gives legitimacy to the ALU and puts Amazon in a position to be penalized should they decide not to bargain with the union in good faith. 

“We’re demanding that Amazon now, after certification, meet and bargain with us,” ALU attorney Seth Goldstein said to Motherboard regarding the certification. “We’re demanding bargaining, and if we need to, we’re going to move to get a court order enforcing our bargaining rights. It’s outrageous that they’ve been violating federal labor while they continue to do so.”

Negotiate or Appeal 

Amazon has until Jan. 25 to begin bargaining with the ALU, or the online retailer can appeal the decision by the same deadline. The company has already announced its plan to appeal. 

“As we’ve said since the beginning, we don’t believe this election process was fair, legitimate, or representative of the majority of what our team wants,” Amazon spokesperson Kelly Nantel, said in a statement.

This win comes after two recent defeats in ALU’s unionization efforts. The union lost an election at a facility in Albany and another in Staten Island. 

ALU’s director Chris Smalls told Yahoo! Finance that he is unconcerned about these losses.

“For us, whatever campaign is ready to go, the Amazon Labor Union is going to throw their support behind it, no matter what…We know that it’s going to take collective action for Amazon to come to the table,” he told the outlet. “So, for us, it’s never unsuccessful. These are growing pains, and we’re going to fight and continue to grow.”

See what others are saying: (Vice) (NPR) (Bloomberg)

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