The VICE Guide to Right Now

TikTok Moderators Were Told to Hide Posts by ‘Ugly’ or ‘Poor’ People to Attract New Users

An investigation reveals that guidelines instructed them to suppress videos by those who had “too many wrinkles” or “beer bellies”.
18 March 2020, 4:00am
TikTok told not to promote ugly or poor people to attract new users
Photo by Markus Winkler / Unsplash

This article originally appeared on VICE India.

TikTok is not only the greatest benefactor of cringe culture, but in many ways, the short video-making app by ByteDance has been a great leveller. It’s an inclusive space for many who probably wouldn’t have made it in the mainstream to find fame and followers. But while the social media platform with more than 800 million active users has its share of trolls who like to look down upon TikTok users, turns out the app was also low-key doing the same.

An investigation by The Intercept, a US-based non-profit news organisation, revealed that some guidelines of TikTok specifically asked its moderators not to promote posts featuring “ugly facial looks” or those who shot in “slums” and “dilapidated housing” in the ‘For You’ tab of recommended videos. A leaked document states that moderators were not only instructed to hide users they felt were unattractive or poor, but also asked them to sidestep those who had “too many wrinkles” or “abnormal body shapes” including“beer bellies” and even “crooked smiles”. They even reportedly cracked down on cracked walls or old decorations, deeming these backgrounds enough to limit the reach a post could get. However, it said, “rural beautiful natural scenery could be exempted.”

“If the character’s appearance or the shooting environment is not good, the video will be much less attractive, not worthing to be recommended to new users,” reads the guide translated from Chinese to English for use globally.

While a TikTok spokesperson told The Verge that these guidelines were in place to prevent bullying on the platform, this line seems to be their favourite excuse to fall back on. They used the exact same excuse to shrug off the accusation that TikTok also discriminated against the LGBTQ community and even people with disabilities, specifically targeting and hampering the reach of their videos. The documents further revealed that TikTok was also censoring any criticism against China’s Communist Party or videos that “defamed civil servants”.

TikTok has been raising eyebrows for its moderation and data collection model, much of which is attributed to TikTok’s ownership by ByteDance, which is a Chinese company. TikTok has previously been called out for trying to censor pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and the US government has floated the possibility that the app is a national security threat. They also shadily disbanded all their moderators just a little while before The Intercept made these questionable guidelines public and said they would be opening a new transparency centre in Los Angeles for experts to review its content and moderation practices.

We're still perplexed at how TikTok mushroomed into this massive cultural signifier but not many of us thought that the medium people actually think of as democratic would take on an attitude that likens it to the Mean Girls' you-can’t-sit-with-us one.

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