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Authoritarian Tech

‘Lash curl’ TikTok video about China’s detention of Muslims goes viral

A TikTok video of a young Asian-American woman curling her lashes while discussing China’s ongoing persecution of its Muslim minority population has gone viral.

The user, Feroza Aziz, 17, who says she is an Afghan-American political activist from New Jersey, made three videos to try to raise awareness about Xinjiang.

In her videos, she explains how she’s using the premise of a make-up tutorial “so that TikTok doesn’t take down my videos.”

“Hi guys, so I’m going to teach you guys how to get long lashes,” Aziz begins in her first video. “The first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes obviously, then you’re going to put them down and use your phone to search up what’s happening in China, how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating families from each other, kidnapping them, murdering them, raping them, forcing them to eat pork, forcing them to drink, forcing them to convert.”

Aziz finishes the video by calling the situation in Xinjiang “another Holocaust” and urging her viewers to raise awareness, before resuming her makeup tutorial.

One day after posting her videos, Aziz claimed her TikTok account had been banned by the app for a month. Aziz posted a screenshot of her phone: “your account is temporarily suspended due to multiple violations of our community guidelines.”

TikTok, which is owned by Chinese tech giant Bytedance, deny these claims. A spokesperson said that Aziz’s device, not her account, had been blocked. He said that Aziz posted a video to a different account, featuring al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, some ten days ago. Her entire phone was then blocked from using TikTok.

“I’m assuming she didn’t realize what the issue was,” said the TikTok spokesperson, adding that “TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities.”

During a phone call, the spokesperson explained that “if there is a device ban, which would be the result of content around terrorist imagery, child pornography or basically spam, then the device gets banned too.” The spokesperson said that TikTok had computerized this process as recently as last week.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Aziz maintained she had only been blocked once she started posting about China.

On Wednesday morning, Aziz posted a further development to her Twitter account: “UPDATE: my tik tok is back up…very suspicious,” she wrote.

Earlier this week, leaked documents showed how TikTok moderates and buries politically motivated content. According to an internal document shown by a whistleblower to Netzpolitik, a German website which covers digital rights, during election periods, TikTok instructs its moderators to bury most political content by marking it as “not recommended” and “not for feed.”

“To foster an inclusive community and avoid confrontations among users, we will not promote Content that related to political parties, elections or political ideology so as not to incite discord,” the leaked moderator manual says.

“In general, TikTok seems to drive a system of promoting and throttling,” Netzpolitik’s Markus Reuter and Chris Köver wrote.

In November 2019, TikTok officially became the fastest-growing app in history, hitting one billion active users. But as downloads of TikTok have soared, more political content has entered the app and questions have arisen about its ability to handle controversial issues like China’s persecution of Uyghurs.

In September, I reported on a group of international Uyghur activists who were trying to game Chinese TikTok (Douyin) to try to find information about the situation in Xinjiang.

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