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How young people are using TikTok to discuss elections, wars and now China's internment camps

China this week apologised for removing a US teen’s video condemning Beijing’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang.

Image: Feroza Aziz

IT EMERGED THIS week that the Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok had removed a viral video by a US teen that condemned Beijing’s crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang.

In a post that has now been seen 1.6 million times, Feroza Aziz begins talking about eyelash curling but quickly switches to decrying China’s mass detention of ethnic Uighurs and other minorities in its far northwest.

Human rights groups and outside experts say more than one million Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities have been rounded up in a network of internment camps across the fractious region of Xinjiang.

China, after first denying the camps existed, now describes them as vocational schools aimed at dampening the allure of Islamist extremism and violence through education and job training.

Aziz said this week that she had been blocked from posting on the app for a month after uploading the clip, then noted on Twitter on Wednesday that the video had been taken down.

TikTok initially denied it had blocked her but later admitted having temporarily removed the video “due to a human moderation error”.

The company said the video was restored around 50 minutes later after “a senior member of our moderation team identified the error and reinstated it immediately”.

“It’s important to clarify that nothing in our community guidelines precludes content such as this video, and it should not have been removed.”

Political messaging

The app allows users to combine filters, video editing and audio to create short, shareable videos. Users often copy another user’s video with some small changes of their own to spread the most popular memes. 

Although the social media platform is known more for silly or fun videos showing lip syncs and dance routines, it is being used by some of its young users to discuss more serious issues.

TikTok will not accept political advertising, but political messaging can gain a lot of traction.

In October, Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh posted a clip of himself lip syncing to Choices by E-40, with phrases like ‘Big pharma’ and ‘People who need a home’ flashing up on the screen as he mouthed “nope” and “yep”.

The video took off, racking up 1.3 million views in one day.

However Singh’s party still lost 15 seats in the federal election.

The platform has also been used by Trump supporters, with videos from teenagers talking about the Ukrainian whistleblower and pretending to shoot down text bubbles with names of other candidates, or words used to criticise the US president.

Source: Quartz/YouTube

Replying history

A number of teenage users of the app are also creating satirical 15-second clips portraying historical events.

These include the Cold War, the two World Wards and the Vietnam war, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the colonisation of Africa in the 1400s, the sinking of the Titanic, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Since launching in 2017, TikTok has been downloaded more than 15 billion times.

However it has raised security fears with US senators calling for a government review of the app, saying it could leave users vulnerable to spying by Beijing.

TikTok has sought to distance itself from China, saying in October that it is “not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government.”

But US senators warned in a letter that TikTok’s owner ByteDance could be forced to share user information with Chinese intelligence, and could also be used to influence upcoming US elections.

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