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ByteDance: The Chinese Company Behind Global TikTok Craze

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The Chinese billionaire behind teen phenomenon TikTok is a 36-year-old tech guru whose eye for youth trends and pioneering use of AI has blasted the app to global success — while working hand-in-glove with censors to control content within China. Zhang Yiming’s Beijing-based startup ByteDance owns TikTok, whose kaleidoscopic feeds of 15 to 60-second clips feature everything from hair-dye tutorials to dance routines and jokes about daily life.

Since launching in 2017, TikTok has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times, according to US-based research agency Sensor Tower. It has huge followings in India, the US, Indonesia and elsewhere.

But its rise has raised security fears and last month two senior US senators called for a government review of the app, saying it could leave users vulnerable to spying by Beijing.

ByteDance, which Zhang founded in 2012, prides itself on using artificial intelligence to personalise newsfeeds according to users’ interests.

The company has had “huge and immediate success” because it pays close attention to its young users, said Bo Ji, assistant dean for the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.

“The new generation… want to share their real feelings, whether good or bad. They are more direct and expressive,” he said.

TikTok is ByteDance’s most popular overseas app, while its other products in China and abroad include news aggregators and productivity tools.

Together they have taken Zhang — a programmer before he became a businessman — to the highest echelons of China’s billionaire club.

In 2019, he was listed in the top 20 of the Hurun China Rich List with $13.5 billion in wealth, surpassing more established tech tycoons, such as the founder of search giant Baidu.

Zhang’s fortunes were given a huge boost with ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of lip-syncing video app Musical.ly — later merged with TikTok — in a deal reportedly worth as much as $1 billion.

“Mr Zhang is unusual Chinese entrepreneur,” said Bo.

“He built something for the world; he understands the young people and their psychology.”

Disruptive technology
Liu Xingliang, dean of the DCCI research centre, told AFP that Zhang represents a new wave of entrepreneurs and a different breed to China’s most famous tycoon, Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

He is “more like a young Pony Ma,” Liu said, comparing Zhang to the 48-year-old co-founder of Chinese internet giant Tencent.

This is because Zhang “used to be a programmer, paid more attention to products, and knew technology well”, he said.

ByteDance also operates a Chinese version of TikTok, called Douyin. It is the top short video app in China, with over 400 million monthly active users, according to iResearch.

Douyin, launched in 2016, attracted users by bringing on board top celebrities like Chinese actor and singer Kris Wu.

But ByteDance’s first flagship product was the immensely popular Chinese news aggregation app Jinri Toutiao, or “today’s headlines”.

“(Toutiao) has changed Chinese reading habits… they will know what you like to watch, and you will have the things you like to see recommended to you,’ said Liu.

Aside from TikTok, ByteDance also runs TopBuzz in the US, an English-language news aggregation app that the company was reportedly trying to sell in September.

In 2016 it became a controlling stakeholder of BaBe, an Indonesian news app with more than 30 million downloads since its launch in October 2013.

Productivity app and Slack-competitor Lark is ByteDance’s latest product, which features cloud storage, chat and calendar functions.

And according to recent reports, the company is also planning to launch its own music streaming service to compete with subscription models like Spotify and Apple.

Chinese censorship
In mainland China ByteDance employs thousands of censors to scrub out inappropriate content in its domestic platforms — at a significant cost to the company.

It reportedly hired 2,000 censors in January 2018 after Beijing accused its news aggregation app of “spreading pornographic and vulgar information”.

It then promised to increase its internal censorship staff to 10,000 after being temporarily banned by the government in a widening content crackdown.

Censorship is common in China where the internet is tightly controlled.

But going global has brought its own censorship challenges for TikTok, which is blocked in Bangladesh and was briefly banned by an Indian court over claims it was promoting pornography among children.

It was also hit with an enormous fine in the US for illegally collecting information from children.

One TikTok video that went viral this week contained criticism — hidden within a clip that appeared to offer tips on eyelash curling — of China’s mass detention of Muslims in its Xinjiang region.

A Twitter account apparently belonging to the same teenager who posted the video said she had been suspended “for trying to spread awareness” — a claim disputed by the app. The video was readily available on TikTok Wednesday.

TikTok has sought to distance itself from China, saying in October that it is “not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”

But US senators have warned in a letter that TikTok’s owner ByteDance could be forced to share user information with Chinese intelligence, and could also be used to influence upcoming US elections.

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TikTok accused by amputee model of deciding who is ‘vulnerable to bullying’

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Amputee, model and body positivity advocate Jess Quinn has lashed out at ever-growing social media network TikTok for censoring disabled people because it deemed them “susceptible” to bullying.

The 27-year-old New Zealander, who lost her leg to cancer when she was nine years old, shared her message on Instagram on Thursday.

Accompanying a video of her dancing with her prosthesis and wearing a hoodie with the words “all bodies welcome here” was a stark message for the video-based social media network.

“I hear you have shadow banned videos by ‘disabled, fat or LGBTQ ‘ users because they’re ‘vulnerable to bullying if their videos reach a wide audience’,” Quinn wrote.

Shadow banning is the practice by social media platforms of blocking users so it is not obvious to the user that they or their comments have been blocked.

“Well, on behalf of all of those people, the only bullying is your exclusion of people who you believe are ‘vulnerable’,” Quinn wrote.

“I thought I’d add a little video to your app of my ‘vulnerable’ self, wearing a sweatshirt that says ALL BODIES WELCOME HERE, while removing one of my body parts.”

More on 7NEWS.com.au

Her frustrations are due to an early edition of the app’s terms and conditions, which restricted content from people “susceptible to bullying or harassment based on their physical or mental condition”.

Though Quinn says this never affected her personally, she was distressed it could have.

In the video below, an explainer of what TikTok actually is

A look at the app TikTok and why it’s being investigated by the UK data watchdog.

In response, TikTok has conceded it was “blunt and temporary”.

“This was never designed to be a long-term solution, but rather a way to help manage a troubling trend,” a spokeswoman told 7NEWS.com.au.

“While the intention was good, it became clear that the approach was wrong.

“We want TikTok to be a space where users can safely and freely express themselves, and we have long since changed the policy in favour of more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.”

A blog post on the social network’s website says the user is in control of who is able to respond to their content, with blocking and reporting features available.

Quinn said the overarching goal for people with disabilities was just to be treated like anyone else.

“I thank you for your attempt at being considerate to us ‘vulnerable’ people but quite frankly we just want to be treated like everyone else,” she wrote.

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TikTok Prevented Disabled Users’ Videos From Going Viral: Report

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Chinese short video-sharing app TikTok has acknowledged that content produced by disabled users was deliberately suppressed by the firm’s moderators in a bid to prevent these users from becoming victims of bullying, the media reported. Facing criticism, TikTok acknowledged that its approach had been flawed, the BBC reported on Tuesday, adding that the measure was exposed by the German digital rights news site Netzpolitik.

Disability rights campaigners termed the strategy “bizarre”.

A leaked extract from TikTok’s rulebook gave examples of what its moderators were instructed to be on the lookout for: disabled people, those with Down’s syndrome and autism, people with facial disfigurements, and people with other “facial problems” such as a birthmark or sight squint.

Such users were “susceptible to bullying or harassment based on their physical or mental condition”, according to the rulebook.

The moderators were instructed to restrict viewership of affected users’ videos to the country where they were uploaded, according to an unnamed TikTok source quoted by Netzpolitik.

The moderators were told to prevent the clips of vulnerable users from appearing in the app’s main video feed once they had reached between 6,000 to 10,000 views, said the report.

A spokesman for TikTok admitted that it had made the wrong choice, the BBC reported.

“Early on, in response to an increase in bullying on the app, we implemented a blunt and temporary policy,” he was quoted as saying.

“This was never designed to be a long-term solution, and while the intention was good, it became clear that the approach was wrong,” the spokesperson told the BBC.

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TikTok Admits Error After Penalising Teen Who Posted Political Videos

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TikTok on Wednesday acknowledged it had erred in penalising a 17-year-old who had posted witty but incisive political videos, promising it would restore her ability to access her account on her personal device. The company’s apology – coupled with a new pledge to reevaluate its policies – still failed to satisfy the teen, Feroza Aziz, who again raised concerns that she’d been the victim of censorship by the fast-growing, Chinese-owned social-media app.

TikTok is trying to cover up this whole mess,” she told The Washington Post. “I won’t let them get away with this.”

The saga started earlier this week, when Aziz tweeted that her profile had been temporarily suspended. She attributed the penalty to the fact she had recently shared a satirical video that urged viewers to research the harrowing conditions facing Muslims in China’s detention camps. Her comment quickly garnered widespread attention because TikTok is owned by a China-based tech conglomerate, ByteDance, though the company has sought to stress recently its US operations are independent from Beijing’s strict censorship rules.

TikTok, however, said it had penalised her not for her comments about China but rather a video she’d shared earlier – a short clip, posted on to a different account, that included a photo of Osama bin Laden. Aziz’s video violated the company’s policies against terrorist content, TikTok said, so the company took action against her device, making any of her other accounts unavailable on that device. TikTok said her videos about China did not violate its rules, had not been removed and had been viewed more than a million times.

But the video in question – a copy of which she shared with The Washington Post – actually was a comedic video about dating that the company had misinterpreted as terrorism, Aziz said.

By Wednesday evening, TikTok had reversed course: The company said it restored her ability to access her account on her personal device. TikTok also acknowledged that her video about China had been removed for 50 minutes on Wednesday morning, which it attributed to a “human moderation error.”

“We acknowledge that at times, this process will not be perfect. Humans will sometimes make mistakes, such as the one made today in the case of @getmefamouspartthree’s video,” wrote Eric Han, the head of safety at TikTok U.S., referring to Aziz’s account.

“When those mistakes happen, however, our commitment is to quickly address and fix them, undertake trainings or make changes to reduce the risk of the same mistakes being repeated, and fully own the responsibility for our errors,” Han continued.

In doing so, TikTok for the first time offered detail about the actions it has taken to police its platform: In November, the company said, it banned 2,406 devices associated with accounts that violated rules about terrorism, child exploitation or spam. It was part of that sweep that Aziz’s own device had been banned, locking her out of her account there.

Aziz, however, said late Wednesday she isn’t convinced.

“Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No,” she tweeted Wednesday.

TikTok’s policies have drawn critical attention in Washington, where investigations have begun into whether the platform presents a national security risk.

© The Washington Post 2019

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