ByteDance tried to build an algorithm to censor Uighur livestreams on TikTok’s Chinese sister app, a former employee has claimed

ByteDance tried to build an algorithm to censor Uighur livestreams on TikTok’s Chinese sister app, a former employee has claimed

Isobel Asher Hamilton 

13 hours ago

uighur protest china
Ethnic Uighur demonstrators take part in a protest against China, in Istanbul, Turkey October 1, 2020. 
Murad Sezer/Reuters
  • An ex-employee of ByteDance said it tried to build an algorithm for censoring Uighur-language livestreams.
  • They said it would have been for removing content from Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister app.
  • China has been accused of genocide against the Uighur Muslims.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

A former employee of TikTok’s parent company ByteDance has claimed it tried to develop an algorithm to censor livestreams in the Uighur language.

In an anonymous interview with Protocol, the former ByteDance staffer, who worked for the company’s Trust and Safety team, described developing tools to help the company’s moderation efforts for Douyin — TikTok’s sister app for the Chinese market.

China has been condemned for its treatment of the Uighur Muslims, an ethnic and religious minority in its western Xinjiang province, where tens of thousands of Uighur people have been held in detention centers.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said last month that he regarded China’s treatment of the Uighur Muslims as  genocide.

In the Protocol interview, the ex-employee described how their work often was helping ByteDance build tools to quickly remove content which might violate China’s censorship laws.

“We received multiple requests from the bases to develop an algorithm that could automatically detect when a Douyin user spoke Uyghur, and then cut off the livestream session,” they said.

“The moderators had asked for this because they didn’t understand the language. Streamers speaking ethnic languages and dialects that Mandarin-speakers don’t understand would receive a warning to switch to Mandarin.

“If they didn’t comply, moderators would respond by manually cutting off the livestreams, regardless of the actual content.

“But when it comes to Uighur, with an algorithm that did this automatically, the moderators wouldn’t have to be responsible for missing content that authorities could deem to have instigated ‘separatism’ or ‘terrorism’.”

The ex-employee said the tool was never built, partly because the company lacked the data and partly because popular livestream channels were already “closely monitored.”

They added: “I do not recall any major political blowback from the Chinese government during my time at ByteDance, meaning we did our jobs.”

A ByteDance spokesperson told Insider: “Given the huge diversity of dialects and languages spoken in China, Douyin continues to increase its moderation capacities to keep our community safe, particularly in livestreaming.

“As of today there are still a number of languages and dialects that we do not have the personnel resources to effectively moderate, but we are working to resolve this.”

In 2019, TikTok itself was accused of censoring “in line with Chinese Communist Government directives” by US Senator Marco Rubio, near the start of an increasingly heated war of words that ultimately saw President Donald Trump try to ban the app from the US over national security concerns.

In November, a senior TikTok executive told a UK parliamentary hearing that the company did previously censor content “specifically with regard to the Uighur situation” but she added it no longer did this. The same executive later backtracked, saying she “misspoke” and the company had never had a specific policy against the Uighur community.

TikTok has repeatedly sought to distance itself from its Chinese ties. The Biden administration is reportedly re-assessing whether it will uphold an order from former President Trump that would force TikTok to divest its US operations.