Leaked documents show ‘ugly’ standards used by TikTok to suppress content

‘Chubby,’ ‘ugly facial looks,’ ‘shabby and dilapidated’ content could be disadvantaged in search algorithm

Ever thought that all the content on TikTok’s “For You” suggested video pages looks the same?

According to policy documents leaked by The Intercept, the video creation app doesn't just attract a certain type of user but may in fact filter and suppress certain user content that doesn't fit company guidelines.

The 2019 documents posted Monday, which reportedly aren’t in use anymore, detail guidelines that get ugly.

Videos featuring the disabled, poor or elderly users are less likely to show up in the algorithm, and some content will be removed altogether.

"The character himself/herself is basically the only focus of the video, therefore, if the character's appearance or the shooting environment is not good, the video will be much less attractive, not worthing [sic] to be recommended to new users," a leaked policy document reads.

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TikTok is an app that originated in China but launched internationally in 2017. The service is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.

According to The Intercept, the content policies are drafted in Chinese by ByteDance, translated into “rough English,” then distributed to 12 global offices.

In the document, which can be read in full online, a host of traits were deemed undesirable to be shown in content, including:

  • “Abnormal body shape, chubby, have obvious beer belly, obese, or too thin (not limited to: dwarf, acromegaly)
  • Ugly facial looks (not limited to: disformatted face, fangs, lack of front teeth, senior people with too many wrinkles, obvious facial scars)
  • Facial deformities (not limited to: eye disorders, crooked mouth disease and other disabilities)
  • The shooting environment is shabby and dilapidated, such as, not limited to: slums, rural fields (rural beautiful natural scenery could be exempted), dilapidated housing, construction sites, etc.”

second leaked document shows that TikTok advocates for controversial or political content to be censored or banned.

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The rationale behind these policies seems to be an aggressive appeal to gain new users on the novel social media video app.

For example, the “shabby” environment guideline is explained by the fact that “This kind of environment is not that suitable for new users for being less fancy and appealing.”

These policies are shrouded in corporate politics. Josh Gartner, a TikTok spokesperson, said the documents were meant to be “anti-bullying” and to prevent “hate speech,” but were no longer in use.

The Intercept also suggested that the parent-company ByteDance hires out contractors posing as users to pad feeds with content previously posted on Instagram that fit the desired look and feel of TikTok.

"Like all platforms, we have policies that protect our users, and protect national security, for example banning any accounts that promote hate speech or terrorism, as outlined in our Community Standards," Gartner wrote in an emailed statement.

The company reportedly did not respond to The Intercept’s claim about contractors posing as users to further perpetuate ideal content.

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