TikTok Parent ByteDance Tool 'Sensitive Words' Monitors Discussions About China, Trump and Uyghurs (2023)

The surveillance systems run by ByteDance's Chinese employees use word lists to identify or block content on everything from TikTok's rival YouTube to marginalized Uyghurs to 2024 presidential candidate Donald Trump. While more than 50 lists include "TikTok" in their names, TikTok has denied that the lists described in this article were ever used on its platform.

largeLike many social media companies,ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, maintains a library of vocabulary lists that define what users of its most popular platform can and cannot see. However, the Chinese giant's vocabulary appears to go beyond typical moderation blacklists, which tend to focus on content such as hate speech, child safety and terrorism.ForbesI've already learned. Posts about the Chinese government, US-China trade, former president and 2024 candidate Donald Trump, the persecuted Uyghur minority and even some of TikTok's rivals in the US are tracked by ByteDance, the company's internal data shows, and in some cases they are even suppressed.

The list of ByteDance tools that monitor "sensitive words" mentioned on the platform is titled:

"TikTok Sensitive Thematic Thematic Dictionary"

"Trump directive bans words"

"Putin gives instructions on forbidden words"

"TikTok Comments Japanese Choking Speech"

"TikTok Sound sensitive words in Tibet"

"Xi, Peng These Forbidden Words"

"Sensitive words exist in Xinjiang Douyin films"

"Thematic Strategies for Uyghur and Han Couples"

"Thematic Strategies of China's Strategic Policy"

"Living Local - Taiwan Independence, Hong Kong"

"YouTube National Surveillance"

"Negative sensitive wording about the company's products"

I:"Topic Vocabulary Related to TikTok Media for Government Affairs".

The tool's internal guidelines, which appear to have been written by Chinese employees of ByteDance and its Beijing-based subsidiary Jiyun Interactive, describe "global core vocabulary", "common, sensitive high-risk words" and a "global common dictionary ». Illegal words containing "full classification". Documents say the system was built in 2017 to help identify, evaluate and remember wordsCross Byte Beat productBecause "they can pose a threat to the security, reputation and income of the company."

"The commercial side will prevail," he said.

ForbesContent and internal material in the titles of more than 50 listings with the words "TikTok" or "United States" found on the ByteDance tool showed that TikTok employees had used the tool in the past year. Other lists specifically mention TikTok's Chinese rival Douyin, as well as ByteDance products Lark, Toutiao and Resso.

TikTok spokesperson Jamie Favazza said that TikTok has acquired a huge amount of materialForbesMay be "significantly out of date or incomplete" and not refer to any of the recognized wordlistsForbesThe content of this story is or has been used on TikTok. When asked why the lists had "TikTok" or "US" in the titles when they were never used on the platform, Fawaza said: "I can't speculate on the titles of the lists."ForbesSubmit the documents.

“TikTok and Douyin are different apps, located in different markets, with different content policies and source codes. These apps use different keyword platforms and keyword lists and are operated by different management teams." Favazza said that TikTok's sensitive keyword system (until recently called) was broken in 2019 and said that the TikTok version of the tool has been running separately since then.

More from Forbes TikTok's China Problem by Emily Baker-White

(Video) What does TikTok share with China? CEO grilled by U.S. lawmakers | QUESTIONS

ByteDance did not respond to questions about whether the word list applies to Douyin or other ByteDance products, includinglemon 8ICap cuttingByteDance, an app that recently went viral in the United States, also did not respond to repeated questions about the meaning of lists such as "Trump-Directed Banned Words," "Thematic Strategy for Uyghur-Han Couple," "YouTube Home Watch." and “Thematic strategies of China's strategic policy, that is, who created them and how they were used.

Experts told Forbes that it is almost impossible to guarantee that Douyin's restrictions on TikTok will be disabled.

A spokeswoman, Jennifer Banks, said only: “Yun Interactive, a subsidiary of Douyin Information Services Co., Ltd., manages content moderation on our Chinese platforms, including content moderation on Douyin. The team responsible for managing content moderation in China, only the platforms are separate and independent from non-Chinese platforms. used by different entities; and have separate moderation tools."

Dozens of current and former TikTok and ByteDance employees are speaking outForbesAny so-called separation between the two companies is largely cosmetic. and hundreds of documents fromForbesThe lack of internal functional separation regarding access to information, user data and tools, including the sensitive keyword system, has been demonstrated. In addition to the fact that TikTok employees were able to use ByteDance tools last year, the documents also show that ByteDance employees in China are also among those who manage TikTok tools. (Faawaza said TikTok was unable to verify whether any TikTok employees used the tool without knowing their names.)

ONECitizen Lab 2021 ReportHe also revealed that TikTok and Douyin "share many parts of the source code", build on a common foundation and adapt to the market. "Some of these adjustments can be turned on and off in different locations," the report says, but experts tell usForbesIt is almost impossible to guarantee that Douyin's restrictions on TikTok will be lifted.

Got a suggestion for TikTok or ByteDance? Securely contact author Alexandra S. Levine at (310) 526-1242 via Signal/WhatsApp or alevine@forbes.com.

Monitoring tools and other internal programs also collect data on the "hit rate" of sensitive words, including information about US users who post them, according to the filings. A document related to TikTok and other ByteDance products describes a recent update that integrates the surveillance system with a "new text detection service," making it easier to monitor and analyze "sensitive word hit recordings" in real time. (At least one person working on the project is an engineer in Beijing.) Favazza, the TikTok spokesman, said the data that tracked clicks on sensitive or banned words "can only help us understand performance" and that "access is limited".

The Chinese government has used social media to target Americans who speak out against the Chinese Communist Party online, including by commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Ministry of Justice AprilchargedDozens of police officers affiliated with the Chinese government did just that.

"Yes, Facebook and Google do the same to protect their global assets ... but they are not beholden to the CIA or the NSA."

(Video) TikTok hearing: Company building “firewall” to seal off US data from foreign access, CEO says | FULL

ByteDance's sensitive verbal tool came to light a month after TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified before Congress for the first time in an attempt to reassure lawmakers that the ByteDance subsidiary could effectively quarantine data of the US from China and that the US is not what people see on the platform. Subject to the whims of the Chinese regime. When repeatedly asked whether Beijing has the ability to influence what appears (or does not) on TikTok, including content that is not favorable to the party, Chew denied that this is the case.

"We will not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government," Cathy McMorris Rogers, the Republican chairwoman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Congress. "We are committed...we will ensure that this is not manipulated by any government."

ForbesReporthas already been revealedExtensive overlap between Chinese state media and ByteDance and TikTok officials andexposedHow Chinese state media is using TikTok to influence how Americans think about American politics. (TikTok has started tagging official mediaThis year.) There is also a Citizen Lab exhibition, chewingquote, referenceTestifying before Congress to allay concerns about TikTok's ties to China, he found "sufficient" evidence "to prove or disprove TikTok's practice of political censorship."

"The business side has an edge"

whatPartial title view of the ByteDance wordlistForbesQuoting TikTok directly, others have specifically mentioned Douyin (which is heavily censored by the Chinese government), and many others have not. (Some of these ambiguous lists appear to be U.S.-related, such as "Trump-Directed Banned Words" and "NBA Copyright Glossary.") ByteDance did not respond to repeated questions about how to implement a list that does not distinguishes between TikTok and Douyin.

ByteDance's tools guide describes the "core vocabulary of the red line," which includes language such as "six four characters," which appears to refer to June 6/4 or June 4, the 1989 Tiananmen Square violence, the date of the event. The documents show that other entries in the ByteDance Words tool relate to key geopolitical issues such as Ukraine and Russia, the Taiwan and Hong Kong independence debates, and Tibetan speech ("TikTok Audio Sensitive Words in Tibet"). Several also targeted language reviews of ByteDance products, references to TikTok competitors, and sensitive or prohibited references to the Uyghur minorityvictimzChinese genocide.

"The glossary contains sensitive information and there is a risk of disclosure."

For example, a list titled "Thematic Strategies for Uyghur-Han Couples" appears to focus on marriages or relationships between Uyghurs and the country's Han majority. lastreport on human rightsshows an increase in forced marriages between Uyghur women and Han men, calling these largely forced relationships "a form of gender-based crime that violates international human rights standards and further fuels ongoing ethnic violence." Uighur and Han wedding in Douyin,ForbesA TikTok search for "Uyghur Khan" turned up similar videos of what appeared to be happy celebrations. Favazza, a TikTok spokesperson, said "this is not a TikTok list and I can't speculate if it exists for other ByteDance apps."

Employees can plug in lists of words or specific texts and phrases into a "discovery tool" that can perform searches on "screen queries for sensitive words so some good results are missed and cannot be recalled," according to its description tool An insider's guide to using TikTok.

(Video) TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before Congress

Another document describes the different ways the system handles "sensitive words": some are described as "needing to be killed" and "removed directly from the shelves". Other sensitive passwords detected by the tool will be visible only to the publisher and further sharing will be prohibited or otherwise blocked.

Access to ByteDance tools and the material they contain appears to be tightly controlled by nearly two dozen employees of ByteDance and Jiyun Interactive in China, the guide said. "Glossaries are confidential information," it said, "and there is a risk of disclosure."

Fawaza, a TikTok spokesperson, said that the tools and word lists available on TikTok and access to them are controlled by TikTok's trust and security team. TikTok listings are "restricted and permission-based," he said, and that "before a keyword is added to a US list, TikTok policy requires that it be submitted to an authorized member of the US TikTok team for review and approval ".

"This is how they do business"

ModerateMost major social media platforms, including TikTok's fiercest rivals in the US, have policies and tools designed to filter out violent, vulgar or illegal content and language. Like these companies, some TikTok word lists are designed to protect users from self-harm or suicide and other dangerous material.

TikTok CEO Zhou pointed to other similarities, telling lawmakers at a hearing last month that "the potential security, privacy [and] content manipulation issues around TikTok are actually not unique to us."

"Ownership is not at the heart of solving these problems," he added.

"We all know that social media is public, but we forget that what you say can have consequences."

But William Evanina, a former US government counterintelligence chief, said ForbesChinese ownership of TikTok is exactly the problem. The difference in the US is that "the NSA doesn't work with Google and the CIA doesn't work with Microsoft," Evanina said. He explained that US law enforcement cannot access or search the company's user data without a warrant, subpoena or court order, and federal agencies cannot provide them with the vocabulary to track them on its platform. In China, on the other hand, there is little separation between the business world and the government, and officials can do so without crossing legal hurdles: "This is how they do business," he said.

(Video) TikTok Has Been Hiring Former CIA, FBI And NSA Officers

"The difference is that ByteDance obeys the fundamental problem of the government and the Ministry of State Security," Evanina said.Forbes. "Yes, both Facebook and Google do the same to protect global assets on their platforms, but they are not under the control of the CIA or the NSA. The NSA and the CIA will not hand over this book to Facebook. "

Beyond issues of freedom of speech, experts sayForbesFrom a cybersecurity perspective, one of the threats of ByteDance's tracking system is its ability to track how often certain words appear, who says or clicks on them, where those people are, and who else is following them. In China, where companies are legally required to provide information to the government upon government request, ByteDance may be required to share such sensitive data with party leaders — whether the activity originates in China, the United States or elsewhere, experts explained. (TikTok says it has not been asked to share user data with the Chinese government, nor would it if asked.)

"The word list shows that they are interested in certain things and that they want to track who said those words, when and how often," Evanina said of the tool.

Glenn Gerstel, former general counsel of the NSA, added that there are inherent risks when speaking out against China online, whether that criticism is on TikTok or Google Search. "If you start criticizing President Xi and talking about Tiananmen Square, you risk attracting the attention of the Ministry of State Security," he told reporters.Forbes, adding that the public was somewhat naive about the subject.

"We all know that social media is public, but we forget that what you say can have consequences," he said. "What if there was a version of Google for the Ministry of State Security that could go through the entire web and record every time someone mentioned Tiananmen Square?"

"If you do something public (ie program control. Public network)," he added. "They can follow you as much as they want."

Reporting was contributed by Emily Baker-White.

This story has been updated with further comments on TikTok.

(Video) TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testifies before House committee as lawmakers push to ban app | full video

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What is the ByteDance controversy? ›

ByteDance said in December that its employees had inappropriately obtained the data of two U.S. TikTok users who were reporters and a few of their associates.

Is TikTok still owned by ByteDance? ›

Fact: TikTok's parent company ByteDance Ltd. was founded by Chinese entrepreneurs, but today, roughly sixty percent of the company is beneficially owned by global institutional investors such as Carlyle Group, General Atlantic, and Susquehanna International Group.

What is the TikTok controversy with China? ›

In what appears to be a first, a former employee of ByteDance, TikTok's Beijing-based parent company, has outlined specific claims that the Chinese Communist Party accessed the data of TikTok users on a broad scale, and for political purposes.

Is TikTok spying on US? ›

Thanks to TikTok's invasive spying and private data collection, the U.S. government has already started plans to ban it. Here's what you need to know and how to protect your privacy from the Chinese spy app. TikTok has over 100 million users in the U.S. alone, many of whom are children.

What has TikTok been accused of? ›

TikTok's owner ByteDance has been accused of allowing Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members to access the data of Hong Kong civil rights activists and protesters. Users who uploaded "protest-related content" were also identified and monitored, former ByteDance executive Yintao Yu alleges in a US court filing.

What is the biggest issue with TikTok? ›

Members of Congress accused TikTok of collecting user data, failing to moderate content, putting minors at risk, and providing the Chinese government with access to private user information. All social media platforms, from Meta to Google and Twitter, collect user data.

Who owns TikTok in the United States? ›

TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a private company headquartered in Beijing. ByteDance, TikTok's parent company, was founded in 2012. In 2016, the company launched Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. In 2017, ByteDance launched TikTok to cater to a more global audience.

Why is TikTok being banned? ›

TikTok has been banned on government devices in various countries out of a concern the app's owner, China-based ByteDance, is sharing users' private data with the Chinese government, raising concerns about how much longer many people around the globe will be able to access the app.

Which country owns TikTok? ›

TikTok, which has over 150 million American users, is a wholly owned subsidiary of Chinese technology firm ByteDance Ltd., which appoints its executives. ByteDance is based in Beijing but registered in the Cayman Islands, as is common for privately owned Chinese companies.

Why is the US worried about TikTok? ›

WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS ABOUT TIKTOK? Both the FBI and officials at the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance could share TikTok user data — such as browsing history, location and biometric identifiers — with China's authoritarian government.

Is TikTok banned in America? ›

The U.S. already bans the application on federal and public sector employees' phones and on state employees' phones in 32 of 50 states. Several states have also recently sued TikTok.

Why does the US want to ban TikTok? ›

TikTok could be used to influence Americans

National Security Agency Director Paul Nakasone said in March he was worried about the data TikTok collects, the algorithm used to disperse information to users, and “the control of who has the algorithm”.

Does TikTok watch your phone? ›

On Android, the app has the ability to access other apps running at the same time, which can give the app with that permission the ability to access data in another app like a banking app. However, our researchers see no evidence that TikTok abuses this ability.

Is TikTok a threat to america? ›

Among non-users, 65% say the app is a security threat, including 36% who view it as a major threat. Among TikTok users, just 9% see it as a major threat and about one-third say it's a minor threat. The Pew survey was conducted May 15-21, 2023.

What is the TikTok user controversy? ›

WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS ABOUT TIKTOK? Both the FBI and officials at the Federal Communications Commission have warned that ByteDance could share TikTok user data — such as browsing history, location and biometric identifiers — with China's authoritarian government.

What did ByteDance do? ›

AVIC Plaza is one of the office buildings of ByteDance in Beijing. Founded by Zhang Yiming, Liang Rubo and a team of others in 2012, ByteDance developed the video-sharing social networking services and apps TikTok and Chinese-specific counterpart Douyin.

What is the TikTok company scandal? ›

Still, TikTok has a long list of very real privacy scandals under its belt. In December 2022, the company admitted that employees had spied on reporters using location data, in an attempt to track down the source of leaked information. Those employees were fired, TikTok's parent company ByteDance said.

Why was TikTok banned in US? ›

These bans have generally been justified with national security concerns, due to TikTok's ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance. As of June 2023, the app has been banned for use by federal employees and banned for use by state employees in 34 (out of 50) states.


1. TikTok CEO faces grilling on Capitol Hill, denies app spies on users
(Yahoo Finance)
2. The Secret Chinese Company That Owns Everything
3. Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube executives testify at Senate hearing - 10/26 (FULL LIVE STREAM)
(Washington Post)
4. Montana Becomes First State To Ban TikTok: Why That Won't Fix Data Privacy | Forbes
5. Why Banning TikTok Won’t End China’s Influence
(China Uncensored)
6. Tik Tok in US vs. Tik Tok in China: 5 Crazy Differences
(Sara Jane Ho)


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