Most people know TikTok for its short-form viral videos, like break-dancing stars or relaxing cooking channels. But TikTok also has a less-publicized darker side — one where Holocaust deniers and QAnon conspiracy theorists run rampant.
This week, the company announced a series of policy changes restricting the types of content it would allow, including a crackdown on QAnon supporters and a prohibition of “coded” language that could serve to normalize hate speech across TikTok.
“These guidelines reflect our values, and they make clear that hateful ideologies are incompatible with the inclusive and supportive community that our platform provides,” TikTok said in a corporate blog post on Wednesday. The approach will not only target outright hate speech and Nazi paraphernalia, but less obvious references to white supremacist groups as well.
The changes expand on TikTok’s existing policies, which had long banned certain forms of hate speech and direct references to Nazism and white supremacy.
The company now, for instance, also bans “coded language and symbols that can normalize hateful speech and behavior.” Some examples include numbers, code words or visual cues that are widely seen as signals to white supremacist groups.
Earlier this week, TikTok announced a wider ban of posts and users related to QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, which included expanding a ban on hashtags related to the digital movement.
TikTok’s changes follow in the footsteps of its larger and more popular contemporaries. Over the past month, Facebook and Twitter have each introduced a series of changes to policies on what types of speech are allowed on their services.
Together, the changes represent a retreat from these companies’ long-held embrace of unfettered free speech. In the past, Twitter employees referred to their company as “the free speech wing of the free speech party,” erring on leaving all forms of objectionable content up on its site. That position has waned over the past two years, and especially in the past few months, with the company adding labels and in some cases taking down tweets entirely when they become an issue of public safety.
It is a distinct reversal for Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, in particular. One year ago, Mr. Zuckerberg championed mostly unfettered free speech on Facebook in a full-throated defense of his content policies in an address at Georgetown.
His views have changed abruptly. Over the last month, Facebook has banned buying advertising that supports anti-vaccination theories, further cracked down on QAnon’s presence and outlawed all forms of Holocaust denial on the platform. All three of those were positions Mr. Zuckerberg defended as views that he may not have personally agreed with but would still be allowed on the site.
TikTok used its announcement on Wednesday to take a thinly veiled swipe at Mr. Zuckerberg’s about-face.
“We’re proud that we have already taken steps to keep our community safe, for example, by not permitting content that denies the Holocaust and other violent tragedies,” TikTok wrote.
Mr. Zuckerberg has personally spoken out against Chinese-backed companies and TikTok in particular, a start-up that also happens to be a threat to his business. President Trump has made similar arguments about TikTok, saying it posed a national security threat, and moved to ban the app in the United States. That fight may also be defused by a potential sale of TikTok’s business to Oracle, though the deal is not yet complete.