While TopBuzz never discussed these policies publicly, at least one former ByteDance employee who worked at TopBuzz referred to them on LinkedIn, saying he was “responsible for managing content within the platform in accordance with Chinese government policies.” The former employee declined to speak to BuzzFeed News.
As of March 2020, the Intercept reported that TikTok moderators were also ordered to censor videos that harm China’s “national honor” or discuss “state organs such as the police.” At the time, TikTok spokesman Josh Gartner told the Intercept that “most” of the content moderation guidelines they reported on had been discontinued or never implemented. Gartner declined to clarify whether the company still had a rule against “damaging national honor” or police videos. ByteDance did not respond to a follow-up question from BuzzFeed News about whether such a rule was ever in effect or is still in effect today.
Seven former ByteDance employees also described an effort by the company to collect and republish content from other sources, including YouTube videos and journalism from major newspapers and magazines, allegedly without those sources’ permission.
Two of the employees recalled that the company attributed the deleted content to fake signatures, with one saying the made-up names often sounded like “stripper names.” As BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year, ByteDance also posted excerpted content without creators’ knowledge or permission on another of its short-form video apps: a TikTok predecessor called Flipagram.
Five former employees say ByteDance tried to negotiate licensing partnerships with some publishers, including the New York Times and ProPublica. But three of those people said the company also sometimes pulled content from authorized publishers before licenses were obtained or after they expired. Reached for comment, New York Times representative Jordan Cohen confirmed that TopBuzz had republished their stories without a license and a cease and desist order was sent to them, which they complied with. ProPublica representative Alexis Stephens said the organization was not aware of any misappropriation of ProPublica journalism by TopBuzz. When contacted for comment, a BuzzFeed Inc. representative said he was unaware of any misuse of his content on the app.
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment at press time. ByteDance did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about posting content from news publishers without permission.
Six former employees also claimed that the company used the collected data to experiment with training its algorithms to write articles automatically, without the need for human journalists. On LinkedIn, another former TopBuzz employee based in Beijing described the creation of “templates for automated story writing by AI bots.” That former employee did not respond to an interview request. ByteDance did not comment on the allegations about using scraped data to train AI models to write news articles.
Former employees also described persistent content quality issues on the app along with ByteDance’s decisions to prioritize engagement, and thus profit, over accuracy. Six of them described frustrated efforts by US personnel to reduce the amount of hyperpartisan content and fake news on the app. February 2018 opinion piece for Technode from globalization consultant Elliott Zaagman also claimed that TopBuzz sent push notifications containing fake news, including false headlines about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore winning an election he lost and Yoko Ono having an affair with Hillary Clinton.
In September 2018, the company remote nearly 2.7 million pieces of content, acknowledging that they violated the platform’s “community standards and guidelines,” but employees said clickbait and low-quality content persisted on the app long after this time.
For example, a screenshot of the app reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that just eight days after the mass removal of content, TopBuzz sent users a push notification with text that read: “When his tongue touches your cervix repeatedly “.
In interviews, several of the former employees compared TopBuzz’s problems to those of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which also struggled with the proliferation of misinformation and hyperpartisan content between 2015 and 2020.
But according to five of the former employees, ByteDance went above and beyond other platforms in at least one important way: They claim that it not only distributed and recommended divisive content posted by others, but also sometimes created that content itself. The five former employees allege that teams in New York, Los Angeles and Beijing were tasked with writing Quora-like questions for their users as a way to encourage greater engagement with the app. and African-Americans,” describing the questions as “racial bait.” Another described them as “a whistling puppy”. ByteDance did not comment on allegations that it instructed staff to write polarizing questions on the app.
ByteDance’s embrace of politically divisive content on TopBuzz contrasts with its more recent approach to content on TikTok. In recent days, as lawmakers such as Senators Ted Cruz, Mark Warner and Marco Rubio continue to raise concerns about Chinese influence on TikTok, the company has sought to address concerns that it could influence civic discourse by emphasizing that TikTok is used primarily for entertainment, rather than political conversation. ByteDance also increased its spending on lobbying in the US by 130% in the second quarter, with a focus, among other things, on a key antitrust bill, online privacy bills, and a defense spending bill.
Asked by CNN’s Brian Stelter if TikTok could be used to influence the business, cultural, or political behavior of Americans, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said, “We’re not the place to go for politics”. He acknowledged that the app was “a place for self-expression,” but continued, “The main thing people come to and use TikTok for is entertainment and fun, upbeat content.”
Despite this characterization, BuzzFeed News recently reported that TikTok now functions as a central search engine for many younger users, and its popularity has made it a growing part of our civic and political ecosystem.
Brandon Silverman, former CEO of tech giant CrowdTangle’s transparency tool (later bought by Facebook), told BuzzFeed News that while the app today “has a lot of dance videos and cat videos, What we don’t want to do is look back after the midterms, or after 2024, and realize that it has also become a very important part of our political and civic information ecosystem.”
Segal, the director of the Council on Foreign Relations, for his part, said TikTok will have an uphill battle to reassure US lawmakers that its algorithms will not be “misled by Chinese interests.”
When asked what the company could do to win back the trust of regulators, he said, “I just don’t know how they can do it in this hybrid structure where ByteDance still has a significant voice.”
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