While TopBuzz never discussed these policies publicly, at least one former ByteDance employee who worked on TopBuzz alluded to them on LinkedIn, saying she was “responsible for managing the content inside the platform according to Chinese government policies.” The former employee declined to speak with BuzzFeed News.
In March 2020, the Intercept reported that TikTok moderators were also ordered to censor videos that harmed China’s “national honor” or discussed “state organs such as police.” At the time, TikTok spokesperson Josh Gartner told the Intercept that “most of” the content moderation guidelines they reported on had either been discontinued or never implemented. Gartner declined to clarify whether the company still had a rule against “harming national honor” or videos about police. ByteDance did not respond to a follow-up question from BuzzFeed News about whether such a rule was ever in place or remains in place today.
Seven former ByteDance employees also described an effort by the company to scrape and republish content from other sources, including videos from YouTube and journalism from mainstream newspapers and magazines, allegedly without those sources’ permission.
Two of the employees recalled the company attributing scraped content to fake bylines, and one said that the invented names often sounded like “stripper names.” As BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year, ByteDance also published scraped content without creators’ knowledge or permission in another of its short-form video apps: a TikTok predecessor called Flipagram.
Five former employees say ByteDance did attempt to negotiate licensing partnerships with some publishers, including the New York Times and ProPublica. But three of those people claimed the company also sometimes scraped content from licensed publishers before licenses were obtained or after they expired. When reached for comment, Jordan Cohen, a representative for the New York Times, confirmed that TopBuzz had republished their stories without a license and were sent a cease and desist order, which they obliged. Alexis Stephens, a representative for ProPublica, said the organization was unaware of any misappropriation of ProPublica journalism by TopBuzz. When reached for comment, a representative for BuzzFeed Inc. said they had no knowledge of misuse of their content on the app.
YouTube did not respond to a request for comment by press time. ByteDance did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about publishing content from news publishers without permission.
Six former employees also claimed that the company used the scraped data to experiment with training its algorithms to write articles automatically, without the need for human journalists. On LinkedIn, another former employee who worked on TopBuzz and was based in Beijing described creating “templates for automated story writings by AI robots.” That former employee did not respond to an interview request. ByteDance did not comment on the allegations about using scraped data to train AI models to write news articles.
Former employees also described persistent content quality issues in the app along with decisions by ByteDance to prioritize engagement — and thus profit — over accuracy. Six of them described frustrated efforts by US staff to reduce the amount of hyperpartisan content and fake news in the app. A February 2018 op-ed for Technode by globalization consultant Elliott Zaagman also claimed TopBuzz sent push notifications containing fake news, including false headlines about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore winning an election he lost and Yoko Ono having an affair with Hillary Clinton.
In September 2018, the company removed nearly 2.7 million pieces of content, acknowledging that they violated the platform’s “community standards and guidelines,” but employees said clickbait and low-quality content persisted in the app long after this time.
For example, a screenshot of the app reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that just eight days after the mass content removal, TopBuzz sent a push notification to users with text that said: “When his tongue touches your cervix repeatedly.”
In interviews, several of the former employees compared TopBuzz’s troubles to those of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which also struggled with a proliferation of misinformation and hyperpartisan content between 2015 and 2020.
But according to five of the former employees, ByteDance went beyond other platforms in at least one important way: They claim it not only distributed and recommended divisive content published by others, but it also sometimes created that content itself. The five former employees allege that teams in New York, Los Angeles, and Beijing were tasked with writing Quora-like questions to their users as a way of encouraging more engagement with the app. One former employee recalled being asked to write questions about “cops and African Americans,” describing the questions as “race-baiting.” Another described them as “a little bit dog whistly.” ByteDance did not comment on the allegations that it instructed staff to write polarizing questions in the app.
ByteDance’s embrace of politically divisive content on TopBuzz stands in contrast to its more recent approach to content on TikTok. In recent days, as lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz, Mark Warner, and Marco Rubio have continued to raise concerns about Chinese influence over TikTok, the company has sought to assuage concerns that it could influence civic discourse by emphasizing that TikTok is used primarily for entertainment, rather than political conversation. ByteDance also increased its lobbying spend in the US by 130% in Q2, with a focus on, among other things, a key antitrust bill, online privacy bills, and a defense spending bill.
When asked by CNN’s Brian Stelter whether TikTok might be used to influence Americans’ commercial, cultural, or political behavior, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said, “we are not the go-to place for politics.” He acknowledged that the app was “a place for free expression” but continued: “the primary thing that people are coming and using TikTok for is entertainment and joyful and fun content.”
Despite this characterization, BuzzFeed News recently reported that TikTok now functions as a core search engine for many younger users — and its popularity has made it an ever-increasing part of our civic and political ecosystem.
Brandon Silverman, former CEO of the tech giant transparency tool CrowdTangle (which was later bought by Facebook), told BuzzFeed News that while today, the app “has a lot of dance videos and cat videos, what we don’t want to do is look back after the midterms, or after 2024, and realize it has also become a really important part of our political and civic information ecosystem.”
Segal, the director at the Council on Foreign Relations, for his part, said TikTok will have an uphill battle in assuring American lawmakers that its algorithms will not be “gamed for Chinese interests.”
When asked what the company could do to regain regulators’ trust, he said: “I just don’t know how they can do it in this hybrid structure where ByteDance still has a significant say.”
Do you know something that deserves to be investigated and exposed in the public interest? To learn how to reach us securely, go to tips.buzzfeed.com.