A recent Reuters report has claimed that Chinese tech giant ByteDance is working in the interest of Chinese Communist Party as it censored content which was perceived to be critical of the Chinese government on its Indonesian news aggregator app Baca Berita (BaBe). It claimed that as per instruction from ByteDance’s Beijing HQ, the local moderators deleted negative articles about China’s ruling dispensation.
Denying the reports in a statement, BaBe claimed that it moderates content based on the community guidelines and Indonesia’s local laws. However, later BaBe for the least admitted that before their more localized approach the statement goes “some moderation practices in place that were not consistent with our philosophy of having the Indonesian team deciding what is appropriate for its market. These guidelines were replaced in 2019 and we’ve since built and empowered local moderation teams to make decisions that suit the local market”, this does not specify which were the practices not consistent and in which exact month did they change the guidelines as they decided to not answer Reuters questions concerning these issues. All this was coupled with a strange silence from ByteData’s Beijing HQ and China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). China’s Foreign Ministry was the only response from the Mainland, “It has consistently requested Chinese enterprises abide by international rules and local laws as a basis to develop international cooperation.”
Making sense of this is possible only when we put things into perspective internationally. Apart from the famous and highly successful Social Media app TikTok, it owns many start-ups which are country-specific. Following is a small list:
- Vigo Video/Hypster/Flipagram: Merged with TikTok.
- CapCut: Video editing mobile Application.
- News Republic
- Lark: Productivity tools like G Suite.
- Helo: Micro-blogging for India.
- BaBe: News-feed for Indonesia.
- Resso: Streaming services for Southeast Asia.
- People: Social recommendation by friends and KOLs.
- Sharee: Interest-feed for the Japanese market. (courtesy Wikipedia)
The sheer amount of shift in the public discourse by ByteDance’s platforms in these specific countries and the world at large can make policymakers, analysts and security experts raise eyebrows and the countries really concerned.
Although the BaBe statement mentioned that they follow moderation guidelines, the concern here is the revelation made to Reuters that “ moderation guidelines for BaBe, which uses artificial intelligence to aggregate stories from hundreds of Indonesian media outlets, were crafted by a team from ByteDance’s Beijing headquarters” and in line with this, any article with keywords like ‘Tiananmen’ or ones perceived against CCP by BaBe’s media partners were either not republished or were taken down giving teeth to the charges.
With the Indian Government banning TikTok & many more apps (thought to be in violation of Indian regulations) all apparently from Chinese companies, Trump USA signing an executive order forcing ByteDance to move its operations out of the country or sell its TikTok business and the speculations of Mukesh Ambani buying TikTok’s India operations for about $ 5 Billion USD are proof of counties taking these Chinese companies as a threat to their national sovereignty and of some sort of alleged cognitive warfare.
Whatever the case, the companies need to act beyond just denying these allegations and the CCP needs to understand if the allegations are true, in the face of current crisis only drastic confidence-building measures can retract the degradation of the image of China Tech other than that it is all downhill for the viability of Chinese tech products in large and affluent overseas markets.
Author is a journalist specializing in international relations with extensive experience working with online media. He has a keen interest in all things geopolitics and thence enjoys writing on issues pertaining to Foreign Policy, International Relations, Strategic and Security Affairs of Indo-Pacific Region.