While Beijing has majorly banned the operations of international social media networks within the country, an Australian think-tank-based report has claimed that TikTok, a Chinese video-sharing social networking service has shadowbanned hashtags, including the word "gay", related to LGBT issues in countries like Russia, Bosnia, and Jordan.

According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the app, owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based Internet technology company, has instructed its moderators to censor hashtags like "#transgender" in Arabic ads well as "#I am a gay/lesbian" in Russian.

What is shadowbanning?

Shadowbanning refers to a way of censorship whereby social media companies reduce the visibility of particular content or even stop content from being seen by other users without the uploader being aware of the ban, as opposed to a blanket ban.

While social media platforms around the world are coming under growing criticism for their content moderation policies, TikTok arguably attracts greater scrutiny because of its relationship to Chinese owner ByteDance. The app was found last year to have censored videos such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square student protests. Media reports, citing leaked local moderation guidelines, last year, had stated that the Chinese app had outright banned content seen as pro-LGBT in countries such as Turkey.

The think tank argued that TikTok is the first globally popular social media network that has taken a "heavy-handed approach" to content moderation, and, the report added, governments as such should also hold Chinese tech services to the same data privacy and protection standards as they do for other international social media networks.

According to ASPI, other major hashtags that are shadowbanned by the app include "#acab," an acronym for "all cops are bastards," "#Putin is a thief" in Russian, "#Jokowi," a nickname for Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and "#why do we need a king" in Thai, amid a wave of protests in Thailand that are openly defying the monarchy.

China flag
China's flag [Representational Image]Reuters

Shadowbanning LGBT hashtags

ASPI also found that TikTok categorizes most of the shadow-banned LGBT hashtags in the same way that it does terrorist groups such as ISIS, swear words, and illicit substances such as cocaine. Some of these hashtags were also categorized by the app as non-existent despite the terms having been tagged in videos on the app.

In a statement to ASPI, TikTok said it partially restricted some of the terms due to relevant local laws, while it restricted others because the words were frequently used when people were searching for pornography.

The report also names WeChat, the ubiquitous messaging app in China, as another major tool used by the Chinese government to influence the information environment of the Chinese diaspora and even foreign users of the app. WeChat also faces a US ban that could come into effect as soon as September 15.