TikTok has "shadow-banned" several hashtags relating to the LGBTQ+ community.
A report released by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute indicated that terms like "gay," "lesbian," and "transgender" were restricted in several languages for global users, "no matter where in the world they live."
A shadow ban is a stealth form of censorship in which a user may not be aware that they are being censored. As the report explained:
"TikTok users posting videos with these hashtags are given the impression their posts are just as searchable as posts by other users, but in fact they aren’t. In practice, most of these hashtags are categorised in TikTok’s code in the same way that terrorist groups, illicit substances and swear words are treated on the platform. On some occasions, hashtags are categorised as non-existent, when in fact they’re tagged on videos across the platform.
"TikTok spokespeople have repeatedly stated that the platform is not ‘influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese Government,' and that ‘TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities.’ But the censorship techniques outlined below disprove some of those claims and, instead, suggest a preference for protecting and entrenching the sensitivities, and even prejudices, of some governments, including through censoring content that might upset established social views."
In the list it provided to TikTok, the institute found restrictions across at least eight languages. The term "gay" is shadow-banned in Arabic, Russian, Estonian, and Bosnian. The phrases "I am gay" and "I am lesbian" are restricted in Russian, while "transgender" is restricted in Arabic.
There is even a restricted English phrase, "acab," short for "all cops are bastards," a hashtag that trended during the Black Lives Matter uprising following the police killing of George Floyd.
In response to these findings included in the report, a TikTok spokesperson denied the social media platform was practicing censorship. Instead, it called the shadow bans a "localized" approach to moderation.
Some "were partially restricted due to relevant local laws," while "other terms were restricted because they were primarily used when looking for pornographic content," the spokesperson claimed. Other terms in English and Arabic were "incorrectly moderated," they added.
"We are currently conducting a review of those terms that were moderated in error and will look for ways to improve our processes to avoid similar issues in the future," they stated. "In addition, we want to be crystal clear that TikTok strongly supports our LGBTQ creators around the world and is proud that LGBTQ content is among the most popular category on the platform with billions of views."
Citing national security risks, such as the potential that user data could be shared with Chinese authorities, President Trump has announced an upcoming U.S. ban on the Beijing-based company unless it sells all of its American operations. Microsoft, Walmart, and Oracle have emerged as potential buyers.