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ByteDance tracking pandemic lab leak theory mentions on TikTok: Forbes

May 08, 2023

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ByteDance, the parent company of the popular social media app TikTok, is allegedly using a tool to monitor mentions of specific words on the platform, according to a recent investigation by Forbes. The tool, which is reportedly run by staff in China, not only tracks the usage of certain words but also records who mentions them and their location.

The Forbes investigation is based on internal documents obtained by the publication, which include ByteDance’s library of “sensitive” words. Some of these words are political in nature, such as those related to Uyghurs, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, while others pertain to the COVID-19 pandemic and China, with specific focus on the lab leak theory. ByteDance has declined to comment on the purpose of monitoring these words.

The internal documents reveal that some words are marked as “must kill,” “forbidden,” or “prohibited,” suggesting that ByteDance might suppress the spread of certain information on TikTok.

In a separate development, The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to former employees, TikTok was tracking users who watched gay content. These former employees claimed that some personnel could internally access a dashboard displaying users who had watched videos in the LGBT category.

Employees in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia reportedly expressed concern about the sensitivity of this information in 2020 and 2021, fearing that it could be shared outside the company. A TikTok spokesperson stated that the dashboard for this data was deleted in the United States approximately a year ago.

As TikTok continues to amass millions of users worldwide, questions surrounding freedom of speech and user privacy on the platform persist. Calls to ban or restrict the app in the United States continue to grow.

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SHANNON LONGWORTH: IT APPEARS BYTEDANCE MAY BE USING A TOOL, RUN BY STAFF IN CHINA, TO TRACK THE MENTIONS OF CERTAIN WORDS ON TIKTOK, ACCORDING TO A FORBES INVESTIGATION. THE REPORT SAYS THIS TOOL ALSO AIMS TO RECORD *WHO* MENTIONS THE WORDS AND WHERE THEY’RE LOCATED.

FORBES OBTAINED INTERNAL DOCUMENTS, WHICH INCLUDE BYTEDANCE’S LIBRARY OF “SENSITIVE” WORDS…SOME OF THE LISTS ARE POLITICAL IN NATURE…INCLUDING LANGUAGE ABOUT UYGHURS, TAIWAN, AND HONG KONG. OTHERS APPEAR TO MONITOR DISCUSSION ABOUT THE COVID19 PANDEMIC AND CHINA–SPECIFICALLY FLAGGING MENTIONS OF THE LAB LEAK THEORY.

BYTEDANCE DECLINED TO COMMENT ON THESE LISTS, SO WE DON’T KNOW FOR SURE WHY THE COMPANY’S MONITORING THESE WORDS. BUT WE DO KNOW THAT, ON THESE LISTS, SOME OF THE WORDS ARE MARKED “MUST KILL,” “FORBIDDEN” OR “PROHIBITED”–INDICATING BYTEDANCE MIGHT BE SUPPRESSING THE SPREAD OF CERTAIN INFORMATION ON TIKTOK.

IN OTHER NEWS ABOUT THE SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORM…THE WALL STREET JOURNAL IS REPORTING THAT, ACCORDING TO FORMER EMPLOYEES, TIKTOK WAS TRACKING USERS WHO WATCHED GAY CONTENT. THOSE EMPLOYEES REPORTEDLY SAID SOME PERSONNEL COULD INTERNALLY ACCESS A DASHBOARD OF THE USERS WHO HAD WATCHED VIDEOS THAT FELL UNDER THE LGBT CATEGORY.

ALLEGEDLY, EMPLOYEES IN THE US, UK AND AUSTRALIA EXPRESSED CONCERN IN 2020 AND 2021, AS THEY CONSIDERED THIS INFORMATION TO BE SENSITIVE…FEARING SOMEONE MIGHT SHARE IT OUTSIDE THE COMPANY.

A TIKTOK SPOKESPERSON SAID THE DASHBOARD FOR THIS DATA WAS DELETED IN THE US ABOUT A YEAR AGO.

AS TIKTOK CONTINUES TO ATTRACT MILLIONS OF USERS GLOBALLY, WE CONTINUE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT HOW MUCH FREEDOM OF SPEECH AND USER PRIVACY ACTUALLY EXISTS ON THE PLATFORM. CALLS TO BAN–OR AT LEAST RESTRICT–THE APP IN THE US CONTINUE.