Most people know TikTok for its viral short videos like breakdance stars or relaxing cooking channels. But TikTok also has a less publicized dark side – one that Holocaust deniers and QAnon conspiracy theorists are rampant on.
This week, the company announced a series of policy changes restricting the types of content allowed, including cracking down on QAnon supporters and banning "coded" language that could be used to normalize hate speech in TikTok.
"These guidelines reflect our values and make it clear that hateful ideologies are incompatible with the inclusive and supportive community that our platform offers," said TikTok on Wednesday in a company blog post. The approach not only targets hate speech and Nazi paraphernalia, but also less obvious references to white supremacist groups.
The changes expand on TikTok's existing guidelines, which had long banned certain forms of hate speech and direct references to Nazism and white supremacy.
For example, the company now also bans "coded language and symbols that can normalize hateful language and behavior." Some examples include numbers, code words, or visual cues that are commonly viewed as signals to white supremacist groups.
Earlier this week, TikTok announced a broader ban on posts and users related to QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that included expanding a ban on hashtags related to the digital movement.
TikTok's changes are following in the footsteps of its larger and more popular contemporaries. Over the past month, Facebook and Twitter each made a number of changes to the guidelines on what types of language are allowed for their services.
Taken together, the changes represent a retreat from these companies' longstanding acceptance of unrestricted freedom of speech. In the past, Twitter employees referred to their company as "the freedom of speech wing of the Free Speech Party" and wrongly left open all forms of objectionable content on his website. That position has declined over the past two years, and particularly in recent months, as the company has added labels and, in some cases, removed tweets entirely when they become a public safety issue.
This is a clear reversal, especially for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. A year ago, in a speech in Georgetown, Mr. Zuckerberg advocated largely unrestricted freedom of speech on Facebook to fully defend its content guidelines.
His views changed abruptly. Last month, Facebook banned the purchase of advertisements that supported anti-vaccination theories, continued to fight QAnon's presence, and banned all forms of Holocaust denial on the platform. All three were positions that Mr Zuckerberg defended as views that he may not have personally endorsed but would continue to allow on the website.
TikTok used its announcement on Wednesday to look at Mr. Zuckerberg's U-turn with a barely disguised blow.
"We are proud to say that we have already taken steps to protect our community by, for example, not allowing content that denies the Holocaust and other violent tragedies," TikTok wrote.
Mr. Zuckerberg has personally spoken out against China-backed companies and, in particular, against TikTok, a start-up that also happens to pose a threat to his company. President Trump has made similar arguments about TikTok, declaring it posed a national security threat and has decided to ban the app in the US. This battle can also be defused by a possible sale of TikTok's business to Oracle, although the deal is still ongoing.