While TopBuzz has never publicly discussed this policy, at least one former ByteDance employee who worked on TopBuzz alluded to LinkedIn saying that she was “responsible for managing the content on the platform according to Chinese government policy”. The former employee declined to talk to BuzzFeed News.
In 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 spokesperson Josh Gartner told the Intercept that “most” of the content moderation guidelines they reported on had either been discontinued or had never been implemented. Gartner declined to clarify whether the company still had a rule against “harming national honor” or videos about the police. 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 attempt by the company to scrape and republish content from other sources, including videos from YouTube and journalism from mainstream newspapers and magazines, allegedly without those sources’ permission.
Two of the employees recalled that the company attributed scraped content to fake name rules, and one said the made-up names often sounded like “stripper names.” As BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year, ByteDance also published scraped content without the creators’ knowledge or consent in one of its short video apps: a TikTok predecessor called Flipagram.
Five former employees say ByteDance has attempted to negotiate licensing partnerships with a number of publishers, including the New York Times and ProPublica. But three of those people claimed that the company also sometimes removed content from licensed publishers before licenses were acquired or after they expired. When asked for comment, Jordan Cohen, a New York Times representative, confirmed that TopBuzz had republished their stories without a license and received a cease and desist order, which they obliged. Alexis Stephens, a ProPublica representative, said the organization was unaware of TopBuzz’s misappropriation of ProPublica journalism. When asked for comment, a representative of BuzzFeed Inc. that they were not aware of any misuse of their content on the app.
YouTube did not respond in time to a request for comment. ByteDance did not respond to inquiries from BuzzFeed News about publishing content from news publishers without permission.
Six former employees also claimed the company used the scraped data to experiment with training its algorithms to write articles automatically, without human journalists. On LinkedIn, another former employee who worked on TopBuzz and was based in Beijing described creating “templates for automated story-writing by AI robots”. That former employee did not respond to an interview request. ByteDance did not comment on the allegations of using scraped data to train AI models to write news articles.
Former employees also described lingering content quality issues in the app, along with decisions by ByteDance to prioritize engagement — and therefore profit — over accuracy. Six of them described frustrated attempts by US employees to reduce the amount of partisan content and fake news in the app. A February 2018 op-ed for Technode by globalization consultant Elliott Zaagman also claimed that TopBuzz sent push notifications with fake news, including fake headlines about Alabama’s Senate candidate, Roy Moore winning an election he lost and Yoko Ono having an affair with Hillary Clinton.
In September 2018, the company removed 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 remained in the app long after that time. to exist.
For example, a screenshot of the app reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that just eight days after the mass removal of content, TopBuzz sent a push notification to users that read, “If his tongue repeatedly touches your cervix.”
In interviews, several former employees compared TopBuzz’s problems with those of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which also struggled with a proliferation of misinformation and partisan content between 2015 and 2020.
But according to five of the former employees, ByteDance went further than other platforms in at least one important way: They claim that it not only distributed and recommended divisive content that was published by others, but that it sometimes created that content itself. The five former employees claim that teams in New York, Los Angeles and Beijing were tasked with writing Quora-like questions to their users to encourage more engagement with the app. A former employee recalled being asked to write questions about “police officers and African Americans,” describing the questions as “race-baiting.” Another described them as “a little dog whistle”. ByteDance has not commented on the allegations that staff have been instructed to write polarizing questions in the app.
ByteDance’s embrace of politically divided content on TopBuzz contrasts with its more recent approach to content on TikTok. While lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz, Mark Warner and Marco Rubio in recent days have continued to express concerns about China’s influence on TikTok, the company has tried to allay concerns that it could influence public debate by emphasizing that TikTok is primarily used for entertainment, rather than political conversation. ByteDance also increased its lobbying spending in the US by 130% in the second quarter, with a focus on a major antitrust law, online privacy laws and a defense spending bill, among others.
When asked by Brian Stelter of CNN whether TikTok can be used to influence Americans’ commercial, cultural or political behavior, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said, “We are not the place for politics.” He acknowledged that the app was “a place for free speech,” but continued, “the main thing that people come and use TikTok for is entertainment and upbeat and fun content.”
Despite this characterization, BuzzFeed News recently reported that TikTok now functions as a core search engine for many younger users – and its popularity has made it an increasingly large part of our social and political ecosystem.
Brandon Silverman, former CEO of the tech giant transparency tool CrowdTangle (which was later bought by Facebook), told BuzzFeed News that while the app has “a lot of dance videos and cat videos these days, 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 societal information ecosystem.”
For his part, Segal, the director of the Council on Foreign Relations, said TikTok will face an uphill battle to assure US lawmakers that its algorithms will not be “played for Chinese interests”.
When asked what the company could do to regain the trust of regulators, he said, “I just don’t know how they can do it in this hybrid structure where ByteDance still has an important voice.”
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