The short-form video app TikTok can’t shake an air of suspicion that surrounds it in the United States. On Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton announced that they had written a letter to acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire requesting an assessment of national security risks posed by the company and other Chinese-owned platforms operating in the US. The request, which came a week after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed the app was blocking pro–Hong Kong content from American users, underscored a critical point about the video platform, which has been downloaded over 80 million times in the US: Nobody really knows how the site moderates content that favors pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Despite a Guardian report to the contrary, TikTok insists it doesn’t censor its users’ Hong Kong content — protest-related videos simply tend not to go viral because that’s not what its users want to share. As a spokesperson for TikTok told BuzzFeed News, pro–Hong Kong content is available on the app, but goofy memes and dance challenges are what the app’s extremely young users engage with the most.
“Our content and moderation policies are led by our US-based team and are not influenced by any foreign government,” the TikTok spokesperson told BuzzFeed News this week. “The Chinese government does not request that TikTok censor content. To be clear: We do not remove videos based on the presence of Hong Kong protest content.”
TikTok did not respond to an inquiry asking if it restricted the spread of such content.
In a statement published Thursday, TikTok said that none of its data is subject to Chinese law. "We have a dedicated technical team focused on adhering to robust cybersecurity policies, and data privacy and security practices," the statement said. "We have never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked. Period."
To test this claim, BuzzFeed News talked to three TikTok users in the US who had recently created content that supported protests in Hong Kong — as well as posting videos of our own that documented the unrest. None of their videos — or ours — were removed.
The most likely explanation for this is simply that pro–Hong Kong content is not a particularly hot topic for TikTok’s mostly teenage users in the US. But now that the app’s notoriously conspiratorial users think the content is being banned and paranoia about “shadowbans" spreads, so too have videos testing out the supposed censorship.
Claims of censorship on TikTok didn’t seem to take into account the fact that American teenagers don’t appear to be creating viral pro–Hong Kong content on platforms like Facebook or Instagram either. The #HongKongProtest Instagram tag, for comparison, has 60,000 posts.
Concerns about TikTok didn’t come from nowhere. The idea cemented itself in the popular imagination last month following TikTok moderation guidelines leaked in the Guardian, which included instructions on political content. The rules reportedly designated “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc." as “hate speech.”
The guidelines divide banned material into two categories: “violations,” which are removed from the website, and “visible to self,” which limits distribution across TikTok. (This process is consistent with a company presentation that BuzzFeed News obtained in June.)
Nothing quoted in the Guardian explicitly mentions Hong Kong–related content. Bytedance, the Beijing-based tech company that owns TikTok, also told the Guardian that the version of the documents in its reporting had been retired in May — before the current round of protests in Hong Kong began.
To test the idea that TikTok might be banning or shadowbanning (that is, making it “visible to self”) Hong Kong political content, BuzzFeed News set up a TikTok account 11 weeks ago and uploaded videos of protests. The account wasn’t promoted beyond using tags like #AntiELab, #HongKongProtest, and #NoToExtraditionBill.
The result? Users found the content. Our videos received a small but steady amount of organic engagement over the summer. A few dozen comments and likes isn’t a lot compared to the millions of likes and views that more popular content receives — but it’s also not indicative of a ban or shadowban.
According to a spokesperson for the Hong Kong protest movement’s press room, there could be another explanation: TikTok is generally unpopular in the city and not something activists would consider using for fear of surveillance.
“[TikTok] is much more popular and active in Mainland China,” the spokesperson said. “Considering the nature and affiliation of the app, this is not a platform utilized by the vast majority Hong Kong protesters. We could not speak for every single protester, but from information we gathered, there are limited usage of TikTok in the whole movement.”
The largest Hong Kong–related hashtag on TikTok is #HongKong, with 151 million collective views. It’s largely full of lifestyle content — which makes sense given how Hong Kong activists avoid the app. (The tag has become more political over the summer, particularly following recent controversies between American companies and the Chinese government.)
In fact, a great deal of protest-related content does not seem to be uploaded to TikTok by Hong Kongers at all, but by young American testing the limits the Chinese company might set. BuzzFeed News spoke to three American TikTok users who posted pro–Hong Kong content or videos critical of the Chinese government to the #HongKong tag in the last month. All three were suspicious, but said their videos did much better than they had expected.
The largest of these three accounts, @microsoftedgy, is run by a 22-year-old named David, who told BuzzFeed News that he was shocked at how well his video did.
“Right now, the image of Winnie the Pooh is illegal in China because people have been saying that Xi Jinping looks like him,” David says in his video. “I wonder how long this post will stay up.”
The video, captioned “Tik tok is a Chinese company after all... #IStandWithHongKong #KongKong #IStandWithHK #HK #Democracy," had 55,000 likes and 420 comments as of this week. The comments are largely from other TikTok users reporting that they see the video: “1 hour,” “13 hours and still here,” “15 hours strong, we can get on the For You page I know it.”
David said he decided to make the video after Blizzard Entertainment announced it would suspend and confiscate the winnings of Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai, a professional Hearthstone player who made pro–Hong Kong statements on a gaming stream. Blizzard walked back its suspension from a year to six months and reinstated his winnings.
David said that 90% of the traffic for his video came from TikTok’s For You page. “I woke up to 120,000 views," he said. “Compared to other videos I've done, it really is a strange one.”
Another, much smaller, account, @SpamBot42069, run by a 19-year-old named Wade, has been posting a series of pro–Hong Kong videos. His account has about 1,000 followers. In one of Wade’s videos, he waves at the camera with a text bubble on the screen reading “Making TikToks about the Hong Kong protests until I get my account suspended.” This is followed by images of Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh together. The video, captioned “Starting a new project, so excited #HongKong #WinnieThePooh #ForYouPage,” received about 7,000 likes and around 100 comments as of this week. Wade was also confused at how the video performed — he assumed no one would see it.
He told BuzzFeed News the video performed a lot better than his others. “If the amount of content about Hong Kong is growing though I’d attribute it to articles about the app’s suppression of content and content creators’ responses to said articles.”
A 19-year-old TikTok user going by @SlingSheetz told BuzzFeed News he made pro–Hong Kong videos as jokes at first. One video shows him dancing in a bedroom with a text bubble that says “I support Hong Kong" and is captioned “Share this before it gets blocked by the Chinese government!!! #ThisIsMe #ScienceExperiments #TrickOrTreats #china #HongKong #Meme #ForYou #Joke #FYP”
He suspected his video and pro–Hong Kong content were being censored, despite some videos getting thousands of likes. “You go on the app and you see almost nothing about Hong Kong even though it’s one of the biggest things in the news right now,” @SlingSheetz said.
Regardless of the engagement numbers around political videos, American users continue to whisper about possible crackdowns. Wade reached out to BuzzFeed News a few days after his initial interview to say that he thought TikTok was soft-censoring his account.
“One video in particular got less views than I’d normally get with half the number of subscribers. I’d now be willing to say my account may be censored,” he said, pointing to a video he made recently that got fewer views than he would normally expect.
It is true, however, that many Hong Kong–related videos on TikTok perform poorly. The most popular video on BuzzFeed News’ Hong Kong account right now has 72 likes and 11 comments. It’s captioned “Police firing rounds of tear gas at protests in Sai Ying Pun yest #antelab #HongKongProtest #反送中” and was uploaded nine weeks ago.
“This will get taken down sooo fast,” one user commented on it Thursday. But at the time this story was published, it was still up.
Rosalind Adams in Hong Kong and Ryan Mac in San Francisco contributed reporting to this story.