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Reflecting New U.S. Control of TikTok's Censorship, Our Report Criticizing Zelensky Was Deleted
For years, U.S. officials and their media allies accused Russia, China and Iran of tyranny for demanding censorship as a condition for Big Tech access. Now, the U.S. is doing the same to TikTok.
Accusations of Chinese tyranny are often based on demands from Beijing that Google and Facebook comply with their censorship orders as a condition for remaining in China. Reports over the years suggested that these firms typically comply: Google was building a censored search engine suited to Chinese demands; The New York Times has claimed Facebook developed a censorship app as its entrance requirement to the Chinese market, and Vox accused Apple of succumbing to Chinese censorship demands by banning an app from its store that had been used by protesters in Hong Kong demanding liberation from control by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
But now the tables appeared to be turning when it comes to U.S. censorship demands and TikTok. Threats to ban or severely limit the Chinese-owned-and-controlled platform from the U.S. have been hovering over TikTok's head through both the Trump and Biden years. The most common justification offered for the threat is that TikTok's presence in the U.S. empowers China to propagandize Americans, a concern that escalated along with the platform's massive explosion among Americans. Since early 2021, TikTok has been the most-downloaded app both worldwide and in the U.S. In August, Pew Research conducted a “survey of American teenagers ages 13 to 17” and found that “TikTok has rocketed in popularity since its North American debut several years ago and now is a top social media platform for teens among the platforms covered in this survey.”
Concerns over China's ability to manipulate U.S. public opinion were based on claims that China was banning content on TikTok that was contrary to Beijing's interests. Western media outlets were specifically alleging that the Chinese government itself was censoring TikTok to ban any content that the CCP regarded as threatening to its national security and internal order. “TikTok, the popular Chinese-owned social network, instructs its moderators to censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong,” warned The Guardian in late 2019.
Rather than ban TikTok from the U.S., the U.S. Security State is now doing exactly that which China does to U.S. tech companies: namely, requiring that, as a condition to maintaining access to the American market, TikTok must now censor content that undermines what these agencies view as American national security interests. TikTok, desperate not to lose access to hundreds of millions of Americans, has been making a series of significant concessions to appease the Pentagon, CIA and FBI, the agencies most opposed to deals to allow TikTok to stay in the U.S.
Among those concessions is that TikTok is now outsourcing what the U.S. Government calls “content moderation” — a pleasant-sounding euphemism for political censorship — to groups controlled by the U.S. Government:
TikTok has already unveiled several measures aimed at appeasing the U.S. government, including an agreement for Oracle Corp to store the data of the app's users in the United States and a United States Data Security (USDS) division to oversee data protection and content moderation decisions. It has spent $1.5 billion on hiring and reorganization costs to build up that unit, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Perhaps one might view as reasonable U.S. concerns that China can weaponize TikTok to propagandize Americans and destabilize the U.S. through its power to censor the platform. Note, however, that this is precisely the same concern that countries like China, Iran and Russia all invoke to justify censorship compliance as a condition for U.S. internet companies to remain active in their country. Those countries fear that American tech companies — whose close partnership with U.S. security agencies has long been well-documented — will be used to propagandize and destabilize their populations and countries exactly the way that the U.S. Security State is apparently concerned that China can do to the U.S. via TikTok.
Of course, when all of these governments claim to be worried about “destabilization” and “propaganda,” what they mean is that they want to retain the power to propagandize their own citizenries. By “national security” and “national interests,” they do not mean they want to protect the welfare of their citizens but rather seek to preserve their foreign meddling in other countries and their ability to quash criticism of national leaders. If that was not what they meant, they would simply ban all censorship from these platforms, rather than demand the right to control what is prohibited.
These moves by the U.S. Security State to commandeer censorship decisions on TikTok, accompanied by the hovering threat to ban TikTok entirely from the U.S., appear to be having the desired effect already. When we launched our new live nightly show on Rumble, System Update, our social media manager created new social accounts for the program on major social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and TikTok, etc. Each day, she posts identical excerpts from the prior night's shows on each social media account.
For Monday night's show, I devoted my opening monologue to documenting how reporting by mainstream Western media outlets on Ukraine and President Zelensky completely reversed itself as soon as Russia invaded in February. When one reviews the trajectory of how these media outlets radically reversed everything they had been saying about Ukraine and Zelensky, one can see the Orwellian newspeak — we have always been at war with Eastasia — happening in real time.
For years, for instance, mainstream news outlets in the West repeatedly warned that the Ukrainian military was dominated by a neo-Nazi group called the Azov Battalion, that the Kiev-based government was becoming increasingly repressive and anti-democratic (including ordering three opposition media outlets closed in 2021), and that Zelensky himself was not only supported by a single Ukrainian oligarch but he himself had massive off-shore accounts of hidden wealth as revealed by the Pandora Papers. And the U.S. State Department itself, in 2021, had documented a long list of severe human rights abuses carried out either with the acquiescence or even active participation of the Zelensky-led central government.
One of the video excerpts from our program that was posted to all social media sites, including TikTok, was this indisputably true and rather benign review of how media outlets, including The Guardian, had previously depicted Zelensky as surrounded by corruption and hidden wealth. To be sure, the excerpt was critical of Zelensky, but there is absolutely nothing even factually contestable, let alone untrue, given that the whole point of the clip is to show how the media had spoken of Ukraine and Zelensky prior to the invasion as opposed to the fundamentally different tone that now drives their coverage:
Shortly after posting this video, we were notified by TikTok that the video was removed by the platform. The cited ground was “integrity and authenticity,” namely that the video, for unspecified reasons, had “undermine[d] the integrity of [their] platform or the authenticity of [their users].” The warning added that TikTok "removes content and accounts that…involve misleading information that causes significant harm.” In a separate communication, TikTok notified our program that our “account is at high risk of being restricted based on [our] violation history” (the sole violation we were ever advised of was this specific video). As a result, TikTok warned, “the next violation could result in being prevented from accessing some feature.” A more ambiguous warning could scarcely be imagined.
Our first reaction, as one might expect, was confusion — for all sorts of reasons. We began with the fact that TikTok is a Chinese-run-and-operated platform. The Chinese government has been neutral to supportive of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and therefore has absolutely no interest whatsoever in prohibiting criticisms of President Zelensky. So even assuming that it was some Artificial Intelligence matrix that detected naughty content in our video — we will see what happens once the appeal we filed is decided — it struck as very strange indeed that AI “content moderation” would be geared to finding and banning derogatory claims about the Ukrainian president.
This would make far more sense from Meta and Google — whose censorship regime usually aligns with the agenda of the U.S. Security State — but the same video remains undisturbed on Facebook, Meta's Instagram site, and Google's YouTube. Indeed, Facebook has been changing its censorship rules from the start of the war to align with the CIA and Pentagon's goals, including by creating an exception to its ban on praising hate groups that allows one to lavish praise on the Azov Battalion, something that was prohibited on the social media giant prior to the invasion, due to the widespread view that Azov is a neo-Nazi group.
As we have previously reported, each time legislation is proposed in the U.S. Congress to rein in Big Tech's monopolistic powers, those who rise most vocally in opposition are operatives of the U.S. Security State. As we reported in April, a group of former U.S. intelligence officials issued a letter condemning attempts to legislatively weaken Big Tech by explicitly arguing that its censorship powers are crucial to the goals of U.S. foreign policy, especially when it comes to Russia. In other words, the CIA and Pentagon want and need Big Tech to ban any dissent to U.S. Government foreign policy. When it came to the war in Ukraine, Big Tech obeyed immediately. As Vox reported in early March, less than two weeks after Russia invaded, Big Tech had “sided” with the U.S. Government by engaging in all sorts of censorship demanded by U.S. foreign policy goals — a move which Vox predictably and explicitly applauded (let us never lose site of how twisted it is for self-proclaimed “journalists” to cheer government-directed corporate censorship). As Vox wrote:
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Big Tech has finally taken a side….One by one, Google, Meta, TikTok, and every other consumer tech company have sided with Ukraine in some way….But now that the tech giants have acknowledged that they do indeed have lines they won’t cross — in this case, a deadly incursion that raises the specter of nuclear war — the companies will be asked to explain why they’re okay with other compromises, in, say, Turkey or other authoritarian states. Those will be uncomfortable discussions, but that’s not a bad thing: Even neutrality is a stance, and it’s worth asking if you’re picking it because it’s moral, or simply convenient for your brand of capitalism.
Reports are legion of Big Tech censoring dissent on the war in Ukraine from the start of the invasion. And the EU enacted one of the most chilling censorship laws in years: it made it illegal for any platform to allow Russian-state media, including RT and Sputnik, to be heard, even if the owners and managers of those platforms wish to air them; the new EU laws and regulations also require search engines such as Google to banish any Russian-state media from search results.
So having our video that was critical of Zelensky banned by an American Big Tech platform would be unsurprising (even though the video did not really criticize Zelensky as much as it showed how Western media outlets used to criticize him before the war began and then stopped doing so). But it made no sense that a Chinese-owned platform would remove that video.
But when we began investigating how TikTok's censorship regime functions and, more importantly, who controls it, this all started to become much clearer. While the Chinese government clearly has no interest in banning criticisms of Zelensky, the U.S. Government most certainly does. The bizarre hero's welcome given to Zelensky by leaders of both parties when he appeared in Washington last week was a testament to how devoted the U.S. Government is to venerating the Ukrainian leader and fortifying the mythologies and hagiographies surrounding him.
In fact, the primary point of our Monday night monologue was that criticisms of Zelensky went from being widespread in Western media prior to the invasion to banned and prohibited after the invasion. And within hours, TikTok — whose censorship decisions are now heavily influenced if not outright controlled by the U.S. Security State — came along and provided the clearest and most compelling example proving that statement true: it banned our video based on the crime of airing criticisms of Zelensky.
What is newsworthy — and alarming — is not the specific removal of a video excerpt from our news program. It is common for AI programs or low-level moderators to err in their censorship decisions; perhaps it will be reversed on appeal.
But what is most certainly notable is that the U.S. national security state has leveraged threats to ban TikTok from the U.S. entirely into concessions that they, rather than TikTok's Chinese owners, will now make “content moderation” decisions for the platform, thus leaving TikTok now in the same bucket along with Google, Meta and Apple as massive companies subject to the censorship directives of the U.S. Government (whether Twitter remains in that group will be determined by future decisions of its new owner Elon Musk, though if the Twitter Files revealed anything, it is that Twitter's censorship decisions had, prior to Musk's acquisition, largely been driven by those same U.S. security agencies).
The irony here cannot be avoided. For years, U.S. Government officials and their media allies denounced the Russian, Chinese and Iranian governments for conditioning the presence of American Big Tech firms in their country on the willingness of those firms to censor content deemed dangerous by those governments. And now, without much debate, the U.S. Government has imposed similar censorship demands on TikTok. As a result, content that conflicts with the agenda of the U.S. Security State is clearly imperiled not only on Google, Meta and Apple platforms but also now on one of the fastest-growing social media platforms on the planet.
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