TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is set to testify before Congress in March about privacy concerns and the platform’s effect on mental health.
TikTok announced the creation of transparency centers in Los Angeles, D.C. and Singapore in 2020, just before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. But they remained closed to visitors until Tuesday, when the Los Angeles center offered a tour to journalists. The company said the D.C. and Singapore locations, which have been closed because of the pandemic, do not yet have a set date to open. It continues to conduct virtual tours of the information presented in the centers for key policymakers.
TikTok officials openly acknowledged that the purpose of the centers is to counter public officials’ concerns that the company, which is owned by China’s ByteDance, is abusing U.S. users’ data and could be used to spread Chinese government propaganda.
“We have to build a trusted platform, one that ensures the safety and security of all of our users globally,” said Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s chief operating officer, at Tuesday’s tour. “When you think about trust and transparency, you really can’t have one without the other.”
How influential the centers might be in turning the tide of anti-TikTok politicians remains to be seen. The company says it hopes that policymakers, civil society members, academic experts, members of the media and other industry leaders will visit the centers and come away with a deeper understanding of TikTok’s data privacy and moderation processes. But visits are by appointment only and must be coordinated with TikTok representatives.
Visitors to the Los Angeles center, which is adjacent to the company’s U.S. headquarters, in a small, tree-lined office park where TikTok also has office space, will find themselves in a spacious suite outfitted with pink and blue neon lights against dark, glossy walls. On one side of the suite there is a set of small rooms featuring different stations where users can learn more about the platform.
The left side of the primary room in the center features giant screens where visitors can replicate the experience of scrolling TikTok and understand what sort of creators and brands post on the platform. There’s a privacy and security hub where visitors are informed about how TikTok protects users’ privacy and data. In another small side room, guests can pretend to be TikTok moderators; they’re given a short training session on how to assess content for rules violations, then are shown various videos in a game where they must pick what content violates rules and why.
In another room, computers are lined up against a wall for guests to go through a short tutorial on how the platform’s For You algorithm works and better understand how its recommendation system is powered. Behind a giant neon sign, there’s a server room. To enter the room, visitors must sign a nondisclosure agreement, then pass through a metal detector and place their phones and other electronic devices in storage lockers before entering the room to physically review TikTok source code. None of the journalists at Tuesday’s event signed the NDA or entered the server room.
ByteDance has recently made a more aggressive effort to counter attacks from politicians seeking to ban it. It has hosted briefings for D.C.-based journalists on its years-long negotiations with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States over ways to assuage concerns about data security. Among the concessions TikTok has proposed is the creation of a separate U.S. business unit that would be independent of ByteDance and whose three-member board would be approved by the U.S. government.
Suzy Loftus, TikTok’s global head of trust and safety, was on hand on Tuesday to speak to the journalists at the transparency center about the platform’s moderation policies and why certain content is banned.
To build on its transparency efforts, TikTok also announced several updates aimed at helping creators understand content guidelines. TikTok creators have expressed frustration with the lack of clarity around what gets an account banned and whether their accounts are in danger.
Soon, TikTok creators will be able to clearly see how many community guidelines violations they’ve accrued on an “Account status” page within the app to better understand how their content is being judged. There will also be a section called “Report records” where creators can see the status of reports they’ve made on other content or accounts.
“These new tools add to the notifications creators already receive if they’ve violated our policies, and support creators’ ability to appeal enforcements and have strikes removed if valid,” the company announced in a blog post about the update.
TikTok will also begin notifying creators if their account is in danger of permanent deletion.
Currently, TikTok institutes a variety of measures to penalize accounts it deems potentially harmful, and accounts are subject to restrictions such as temporary bans from posting or commenting. The company said it found that almost 90 percent of users who violated community guidelines did so by using the same feature consistently — for instance, using the messaging feature to spam someone — and over 75 percent violated the same policy category repeatedly.
“With these updates,” TikTok announced, “if someone posts content that violates one of our Community Guidelines, the account will accrue a strike as the content is removed. An account that meets the threshold of strikes within either a product feature or policy will be permanently banned. We will continue to issue permanent bans on the first strike for severe violations.”
TikTok is also testing a new feature to give creators more information about videos they’ve posted that are not eligible for recommendation on the “For You” feed. By navigating to their analytics page, creators will be able to see exactly why their video is ineligible and can appeal that decision.
Finally, for users tired of seeing the same type of content on their For You pages, the company will soon allow users to tap “Refresh” to see a new, more diverse feed of content not based on their previous activity and interactions on TikTok. “From the time they hit Refresh, their For You feed can then begin to surface content based on their new content interactions,” a TikTok blog post says.
Currently, users confused about why they’re viewing a video can tap “Why this video” to find out why it’s being recommended in their feed, and choose to filter out specific hashtags or phrases. They can also click “Not interested” to opt out of future videos from a specific creator or that use a certain sound. The company also said it is also continuing to limit non-child-friendly content, such as sexually suggestive or graphic content.