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TikTok-owner ByteDance censored anti-China content in Indonesia until mid-2020: sources

“A cursory search on the BaBe app shows numerous articles and videos that highlight the type of content these claims say we would remove,” the statement said.

ByteDance in Beijing said it had no additional comment beyond the BaBe statement. China’s foreign ministry and its internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A woman uses her phone as she passes by the ByteDance headquarters in Beijing, China.

A woman uses her phone as she passes by the ByteDance headquarters in Beijing, China.Credit:AP

US President Donald Trump has threatened to shut down ByteDance’s short-video app TikTok – widely popular in the US, Indonesia and other countries – on national security grounds unless it is sold to a US company.

Some US lawmakers, including Republican Senator Josh Hawley, have raised concerns over TikTok’s data security practices and allegations that it engages in censorship at the behest of the Chinese government.

Two prominent US Republican senators sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday asking for an investigation of video-sharing app TikTok’s consumer data collection and processing practices.

The letter was sent by Senator Jerry Moran, who chairs the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet.

Indonesia, a country of 270 million where over half the population is under 30, is one of ByteDance’s fastest-growing markets. TikTok had more than 147 million downloads in the country, according to data from app analytics firm SensorTower.

ByteDance bought Indonesian news aggregator BaBe in 2018 after TikTok was briefly banned in the country for showing “pornography, inappropriate content and blasphemy”, according to officials.

In seeking to reverse the ban, ByteDance agreed with Indonesian authorities to hire a team of local TikTok moderators and reinforce its presence in the world’s fourth largest country, according to the then Indonesian communications minister and three company sources.

It then purchased the full operations of BaBe, in which it had already been a majority investor.

Soon after, 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, two of the six sources said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo. Credit:Dimas Ardian

BaBe moderators were also told not publish any articles on the TikTok ban while negotiations with the Indonesian government were underway, the people said.

Under the new BaBe guidelines, articles from partner media outlets that were perceived as critical of the Chinese government would either not be republished on the BaBe app or would be taken down from the app, according to the six sources.

Articles with the keyword “Tiananmen,” a reference to China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, or to Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, were among those taken down, one person with direct involvement said.


Another direct source described articles about tensions between Indonesia and China over the South China Sea as being banned on the app, even when they came from the country’s official news agency, Antara.

Three of the sources said BaBe was using content guidelines patterned on those used for ByteDance’s Chinese news app, Toutiao, with some tweaks made for Indonesia regarding the topic of elections as well regarding race, ethnicity, and religion in Indonesia. Sensationalist articles on those topics, which are highly sensitive in Indonesia, would be dropped, they said.

“They wanted a non-political happy tone for the app,” one of the people said.

The guidelines changed in the second quarter of 2020, when it became possible to read articles on previously censored topics on the BaBe app, a separate source said, calling it a “learning process for ByteDance.”

A 2019 internal ByteDance presentation reviewed by Reuters describes BaBe as Indonesia’s top news app with more than 8 million monthly active users and 30 million downloads by the end of 2019.


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