In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday, a TikTok executive has repeatedly refused to acknowledge China’s treatment of the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, which the US State Department describes as genocide and which the United Nations report says could constitute “crimes against humanity.”
Tapper’s “Do you accept that the Chinese government is keeping the Uighurs and others in concentration camps?” in response to the question. “That’s not what I’m focusing on,” said Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for America.
TikTok is a Chinese-owned platform that has been heavily scrutinized by US legislators and security experts as the social media app has become exponentially more popular over the past few years. Critics argue that China’s national security laws may force TikTok, or its parent company, ByteDance, to hand over personal data of US customers.
Security experts said the data could allow China to identify intelligence opportunities or attempt to influence Americans through disinformation campaigns.
The company is also accused of censoring politically sensitive content to the Chinese government, including banning some accounts that post about mass detention camps in Xinjiang in western China. The US State Department estimates that as many as 2 million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are detained in these camps.
In August, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a report that China had committed “serious human rights violations” against Uyghurs that could constitute “crimes against humanity”.
Given a second opportunity for China to acknowledge its alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Beckerman again delayed.
“I’m not an expert on what’s going on in China,” Beckerman said. “So it’s not an area I’m focusing on.”
Beckerman denied censorship posts about concentration camps in Xinjiang, saying moderation decisions were made in the US, not China, and that people can search the TikTok app to find “lots of content about it.”
“We do not censor content on behalf of any government,” Beckerman said. “This does not violate our content guidelines.”
Tapper pressed Beckerman for the third time, asking if he feared that the TikTok administrator would be fired if he discussed China’s treatment of Uighurs. He refused once again to admit it, simply saying that China is one of the many bad actors in the world.
“Look, I think there’s been a lot of human rights violations happening in China and around the world,” Beckerman said. “I think these are very important. I’m not here to be an expert on human rights abuses around the world.”
TikTok described Beckerman’s claim that he refused to acknowledge China’s treatment of Uighurs as “outrageous”.
“Michael has absolutely acknowledged that there are human rights violations occurring in China,” TikTok spokesperson Brooke Oberwetter said in a statement. But as TikTok’s head of public policy, he stipulated that this determination was outside of his area of expertise. TikTok’s role as head of public policy is to explain TikTok’s approach to content, which Jake asked several times.”
In addition to security and privacy concerns, TikTok has also been criticized for revealing potentially harmful content about teen suicide and eating disorders.
In a report released last week, the nonprofit Center for Fighting Digital Hate found that after signing up for a TikTok account, it can take less than three minutes to view suicidal content and around five minutes to find a community promoting eating disorder content.
Beckerman dismissed Tapper’s concerns that some American parents might see this study and believe that “the Chinese government may be trying to destroy our children from within.” Beckerman gave the nod to the app’s parental controls, but called Tapper’s argument hypocritical.
“The same people who are complaining about workers in China and actions from China and all that … they are also suggesting that we enforce Chinese-style media rules here in the US,” Beckerman said. “We have freedom of speech in the United States, among other things.”