Authoritarian Tech

Xinjiang’s TikTok wipes away evidence of Uyghur persecution — Coda Follows Up

We don’t just follow stories, we follow up. Six months ago, our reporter Isobel Cockerell wrote a story about an international group of Uyghurs who trawled the Chinese version of TikTok for evidence of China’s mass crackdown on its Muslim minorities. Some spent every waking hour of their day on Douyin — the Chinese name for TikTok, which is digitally walled off from its international counterpart.

In the months that have passed, TikTok has come under fire for shutting down a video of a young woman who discussed the Xinjiang concentration camps while curling her eyelashes. The platform later apologized for a “human moderation error.”

“TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities,” a TikTok spokesman told me at the time.

Since then, Xinjiang’s Douyin space has become an all-singing, all-dancing propaganda platform.  

When I first spoke to him, Sydney-based Uyghur activist Alip Erkin, 41, was trawling Douyin every day for evidence of China’s persecution in Xinjiang. In recent months, he believes the app has been wiped of the most compromising information about Xinjiang. 

“I feel that nowadays the videos that I would hope to see on Douyin have decreased in number,” said Erkin. “I think Douyin has gathered experience of how they can best censor people.”

Now when Erkin logs on, he’s greeted by a wall of videos showing a sunny, smiling Xinjiang. “The visuals are very reflective of the facade of the situation and the fake acts of being happy and dancing and singing in public,” Erkin said.

Erkin has noticed how the Uyghur language – which is Turkic in origin and uses Arabic script – is being wiped away from Douyin. “Most Uyghurs are using Mandarin now for their captions and in their videos,” he said. 

Erkin tried an experiment: “The other day I used a Uyghur language name to set up an account. About a minute later a notification came in saying: “the information you put in is not accepted by our rules.””

When Erkin changed it to Latin letters, the account name was approved. 

In November, a Douyin video of a young girl complaining about being censored for using Uyghur language went viral on social media. “I would like to ask Douyin, why are my videos suspended every time I do them in Uyghur?”

Aliye Yasin, whose name has been changed to protect her family, used to spend hours every day trying to trick the app’s algorithm into showing her content the Chinese government didn’t want her to see. For a while, it worked. But spending so much time on the app can take its toll. “I stopped digging,” she told me. Now, she says, whenever she logs on, “the algorithm just gives me propaganda again.”

Last week, state-owned media outlet Global Times published an article about how a hashtag, #charmofthexinjiangpeople, had gone viral on Xinjiang Douyin.

The article described how the hashtag featured “beautiful Xinjiang people in gorgeous ethnic costumes, and, of course, their brightest smiles.”

The footage was in stark contrast to some of the video content that has previously leaked out of Xinjiang via Douyin, including images of religious buildings being destroyed, or long lines of people waiting to be scanned at one of many security checkpoints. 

“Bytedance collaborates with public security bureaus across China, including in Xinjiang where it plays an active role in disseminating the party-state’s propaganda,” observed a November report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

“It wasn’t that long ago that Uyghurs were using Douyin (TikTok) to shine a light on the brutal surveillance state in Xinjiang,” tweeted Fergus Ryan, an analyst at ASPI. “Looks like ByteDance has got that under control. Only “positive energy” now.”

Isobel Cockerell

Isobel Cockerell is a reporter and filmmaker with Coda Story. A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she has also reported for WIRED, USA Today, Rappler, The Daily Beast, the Huffington Post and others.

Get in touch via [email protected]

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