“TikTok has shown a real commitment to transparency and improving their overall content moderation processes,” Denham said in a statement provided to POLITICO. “We look forward to working closely with Vanessa and the rest of the US team to strengthen content moderation guidelines and implementation while helping to maintain TikTok’s distinctive creative and fun environment.”
The moves come as U.S. social media firms face ever-rising Washington headwinds, including over failures to curb hate speech and foreign and domestic political trolling. President Donald Trump and other Republicans have also accused companies like Facebook and Twitter of building an anti-conservative bias into their content moderation decisions, a claim for which there’s no clear evidence.
The upstart social network, which became the most downloaded app in the U.S. in 2018, argues that it stands apart from those more established forebears. “I joined TikTok at the start of this year because I found the platform’s fun and entertaining environment to be a breath of fresh air in an online world that has increasingly migrated toward argument and divisiveness,” Pappas wrote in the blog post. “TikTok is different. Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy.”
The broad Washington backlash against Silicon Valley isn’t the only potential political pitfall facing TikTok. It’s owned by Beijing-based tech company ByteDance and is becoming wildly popular just as U.S. policymakers fret about the rise of Chinese technology and telecom firms. The Trump administration and a large, bipartisan bloc of lawmakers say such companies pose a national security risk given Beijing’s tight control over, and entanglement with, companies that operate in China.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) last week urged the government to investigate ByteDance by reviewing its 2017 acquisition of musical.ly, another social video platform that ByteDance merged with TikTok. “Ample & growing evidence exists that TikTok’s platform for western markets, including the U.S., are censoring content in line with #China’s communist government directives,” Rubio tweeted.
The firm’s executives are already showing signs they may be bracing for Washington attention. ByteDance registered to lobby in the U.S. starting in June, listing “general issues affecting internet companies” among its priorities. U.S. firm Covington & Burling also registered to lobby on behalf of ByteDance in July to “provide advice on technology policy issues.”
Although TikTok hasn’t yet faced Washington blowback on the scale that tech giants now encounter, its moves on Tuesday may help ward off growing concerns in other quarters about how users are navigating the network.
Common Sense Media, a California-based nonprofit, warned families this summer about TikTok cyberbullying and shared ways to block that behavior. Indian government officials weighed banning the app due to fears about sexually explicit material, according to a February report. Bark, an app aimed at helping parents safeguard the online well-being of their children, had suggested this spring that “TikTok is quickly becoming a hotbed of abuses ranging from cyberbullying to sexploitation.”
“TikTok has no broader parental controls,” Bark wrote in a March blog post. “Even if you set your own account to private, you may still be exposed to sexual or violent content posted to the public feed.”
TikTok, however, pledges that these content issues will be a growing focus for the firm and part of its desire to keep users feeling safe and comfortable on the network.
“These steps are just the latest efforts in our ongoing commitment to maintaining the app experience users expect while providing them the protections they deserve, and we will continue to provide updates and transparency in the months and years ahead,” Pappas said Tuesday.