TikTok’s parent company ByteDance just got caught with a digital library of forbidden word lists used to censor people who decry its Communist Chinese overlords, according to a new report.
Forbes reported May 5 that TikTok’s parent ByteDance tracks hundreds of “sensitive words” through a “detection tool,” according to documents the outlet obtained. ByteDance is reportedly tracking “political, social and cultural topics” in order to catch and censor anything of which the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doesn’t approve.
“In some cases, where words are marked ‘must kill,’ ‘forbidden’ or ‘prohibited,’ ByteDance may be blocking related posts altogether,” Forbes analyzed.
Words are tracked for frequency of use, who used them, and where the users are located. The implications are terrifying, since the CCP owns a board seat and a financial stake in ByteDance.
Forbes reported that ByteDance lists words relevant to content on “Chinese power or culture,” such as “Xi,” “Falun Gong,” and CCP government agency names. Notably, there’s also a “TikTok” list.
There are “Hong Kong,” “Tibet,” “Uyghur/Xinjiang” and “Taiwan” lists, all of which are groups or areas targeted by the CCP. There’s geopolitical lists to counter anti-CCP policy content that include content about “Trump”, Vladimir Putin, and “Sino-US trade.”
There are even lists regarding ByteDance rivals, including Twitter and YouTube, along with ByteDance products. Lists cover topics such as science, medicine, and global culture. All to suppress content unapproved by the CCP.
The CCP has a notorious record of targeting its American critics online, as Forbes noted:
“The Chinese government has targeted people in the U.S. who’ve spoken out against it online, but experts have warned that the average American can be naive about how far their words can travel on the internet, who may be watching and the potential consequences.”
TikTok spokesperson Jamie Favazza tried to spin his company out of the controversy in comments to Forbes: “‘TikTok's keyword platform operates separately from [ByteDance’s] Douyin's and other China market products.” But Favazza did indicate that at least some of the ByteDance word lists are also applicable to TikTok. “As a responsible platform, TikTok uses wordlists to help protect our community from hate speech, misinformation, and other harmful content,” Favazza stated. “The majority of the list names Forbes provided to us are not used on TikTok.” But saying a “majority” versus “all” means some of the word lists are in fact applicable to TikTok.
William Evanina, the former head of counterintelligence for the U.S. government, noted to Forbes that ByteDance’s word lists are “‘proof-positive that there are specific things that they are concerned about and they want to monitor who was saying them, when and how often.’” Evanina warned: “‘They're not just collecting it for collection's sake.’”
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