By Ajeet Bharti
The Chinese have this idiosyncrasy that ‘they always know better’ if the owner is Chinese. With that belief, they come to markets, where culture is different, languages that they can’t understand, and so on. I have worked for two Chinese companies, ByteDance (TikTok’s owner) being one of them, and I have friends who have worked with other Chinese companies.
Also, I must clarify here that as an ex-employee, there is no vendetta against them from my side, and I am not going to divulge any trade secret here as it is unethical as well as illegal. Still, I will go on to write my experience with a Chinese company as well as what I gathered by knowing people in similar positions at other Chinese organisations.
As I said earlier, they have big trust issues in foreign markets and they don’t rely on inputs from Indian employees. In the conference meetings, they will give you time to speak, they will nod to note and agree to your points, but those issues will persist unless a Chinese thinks it should be fixed.
Imagine, you have 10 years of relevant experience, you have your colleagues with similar amount of knowledge of their field, you have a team leader with around 20 years of expertise on the subject… And then, imagine a person with 4-5 years of irrelevant experience calling the shots.
They rely on the Hindi knowledge of a guy from Beijing University who had a BA in Hindi, than someone like me or friends who have worked with NavBharat Times, Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran etc. There was this one incident, I remember, where that guy confused Nepali with Hindi as both have similar script. That is their level of understanding.
How they operate in a foreign market
After arriving in a foreign market, the first thing they do is, form teams and put out 3-4 products which is exact replica of something successful. Let’s say, in India people are fond of ShareChat. Then, their ‘survey’ also suggests that Indians like different types of keyboards on their phone. Also, having a keyboard app helps them lift the typing data (including your card number etc) and store it on their servers, almost legally.
Now, they will have small teams where the tech and back-end is looked after from their Chinese headquarters, and the UI etc is done by Indians (under Chinese supervision). They invest a few weeks, send their people with Indians in different parts of India to know what Indians want. Or, they will rely on some big international organisation to give them the information they need.
As weeks pass, they see one particular product showing some promise. Remember, every product is a copy. They not only copy the physical things like cigarette lighter or phone or even missiles, but they copy the apps as well. This copy app is now the main focus of the company, with money power, they start to recruit more people.
With such huge onslaught and marketing, they start to get bigger and, in the end, they get larger market share then the original app. The original app, might be a start-up, gets lost and a local company dies a slow death. That’s how they end competition in physical market, which we all are aware of.
How do they do it in China?
As explained above, Indian guys with 10 and 20 years of experience in their areas, and society, are to follow orders of some Chinese whose only experience is being a Chinese. He/she might have just passed out of a college, but he/she will be my boss’s boss.
With experience and knowledge, you tend to put that out for the betterment of products. At a Chinese company, that is a no-go zone. For them, keeping your experience to yourselves is the best way. They believe, they know the society you have been living in for whole your life, better.
That results in Chinese ways/thoughts being applied on Indian sensibilities. A citizen from a political dictatorship, with only one culture known to them where free speech is subverted, no concept of religion, knows one language, is trying to push his ideas in to a democratic society, with hundreds of cultures, tens of languages, multiple religions.
I talked to a ByteDance employee, who asked not to be named, about his experiences in content auditing process. Content auditing is something like reviewing the content that is available on the app.
He said, “You have also worked there, so you know how things go. They waited for ShareChat to drag them to court for copying UI/UX, frame by frame, screen by screen. We had warned them, but they didn’t care as they knew money will eventually win.”
“When Helo app by ByteDance was dragged for cloning their app and copyright violations, they changed the UI overnight. I was there that time and I know how their whole tech team was working nightshifts to get it going before the court date.”
“As an auditor, we used to get thousands of pornographic posts, images, texts, videos, audio on Helo. It was humanly impossible to clear them all with just 4-5 auditors for one language. For Toutiao, a ByteDance app in China, they have around 10000 employees. Also, they apply stringent filtering mechanism in China to suit government’s agenda,” said the former employee.
So, with that kind of human reviewers and proper AI, ML (machine learning) technology is place, they have become one of the largest user-based app in China with 700 million daily active user. This includes Toutiao as well as TikTok.
If they can provide data filtering mechanism for China and thrive there, what’s stopping them in India?
The TikTok case: What is stopping them in reviewing Indian content?
There are two aspects of it. First, they don’t care till they are pushed to the wall legally. Second, they really don’t care. Didn’t we know TikTok is pushing all kinds of nonsensical posts. It thrives on Hinduphobic, misogynist, patriarchal, sexist, body shaming content that promotes violence, strengthens prejudices and perversions of society in most outrageous ways. In last three days we have seen what kinds of videos are being posted on the platform.
They should, rather than putting what their community guidelines are, focus on better filtering with AI, audit ‘non-Dalai Lama’ content as if it is actually Tibet freedom, then you will be able to see how crass your platform is: nudity, sexism, religious hatred, misinformation.
We have seen kids (below 9-10) posting sexually suggestive video, females getting their breasts squeezed, guys swinging their penis… the absurdity goes on! Can they not use AI to figure out age? Can the content auditors not be watchful of hate/sex/violence promotion? Recent videos have shown them promoting acid attacks, rapes, kids attaching two videos to show him engaging in a sexually suggestive act and so on…
This happens because an app like TikTok does have auditors from India, but the guidelines come from China. For a Chinese acid attack might be a new thing, might not have realised what is ‘Haidar ki talwar’, what slapping a girl for not putting hijab means… The policies are decided oblivious of Indian sensibilities, social values and its complex problems.
They will come and say, “No, we have Indian staff that does those things.”
Keeping Indian staff is just a facade or requirement for business as they are pretty poor at English and business deals in India require good English. Here, I am not being condescending, it is a fact that most of the Chinese working in India can’t speak one proper sentence in English.
Now, think about number of languages in India and how TikTok or Helo works in more than a dozen Indian languages. Even if they figure out one language with large user base, but what about others? Tech world is still figuring out English, the most prevalent language on social media, and here you have India where languages not only sound different but even tone changes the meaning.
So, it will be quite a task for them to put tech in to it. The other way is to employ more people, like they do in China and have extensive audit processes so that the app doesn’t promote ghastly crimes like rape, massacre of Hindus, violence against women etc.
When Indian staff is not the deciding authority, it results in the disasters that we are seeing today on TikTok where content audit is so liberal that someone wanting for heads of kafirs is being allowed. This is not one-off instance. No. Such songs (Haider ki talwar) are pretty viral and many post it almost everyday. One viral song will be repeatedly posted by a large pool of users with their own spin or choreography of the act.
So, these things can be easily figured out by systems and the most viral stuff (that has more potential of damage in those cases) can be audited on priority. It can be pushed forward and seen if one audio is getting traction among users, what kind of audio it is, does it have potential of misuse, is it actually being misused?
They can run a line of code, identify that audio and kill it before it spreads out. They can warn all the users that next violation will result in suspension (or whatever their policy is). Did they do it? No.
Misuse of platform is written all over TikTok
Similarly, use of a girl’s content, without her permission, is visible everywhere that we see boys using half of the video screen to show they are ‘raping’ her, getting a ‘blow job’, throwing acid on face, saying selective words to make her look like some slut. The absurdity goes on.
So, if TikTok wakes up one fine day to tell that they promote creativity and have community guidelines, that’s a farce. All they care is how many million are on their platform and how their engagement rate can go up. To push engagement time, they let many things pass.
They keep sitting on it till some thing blows up. The engagement increases with porn, sexually suggestive acts, pervert posts, soft-porn, sexually charged words… This is human tendency. This type of content has larger consumption rate. We have seen this on YouTube where you put a sexually suggestive thumbnail and the views would be more. Now they have discouraged it.
So, TikTok management let it slip because more people are spending time on the platform. They’ve a number to show to brands. As quoted above, three apps by ByteDance, including TikTok, have a monthly active user base of 1.5 billion.
Those numbers are impressive. Then you show your influencer is way, way, way better than that guy on FB or TW or IG or YT… You have an idiot with harlequin-inspired hair, doing absolute shit, promoting r#pe and acid attacks, with 14.3 million followers.
In 15 seconds he can do a #skirt thing and you will have a paid guy telling you how much engagement that one post gave him and now he has a dog that has started to love him… You all know the late night telebrand ads.
So, you are winning the ‘brands in my platform’ war. You bring actors, celebrities on your platform showing them engagement and say that this is the next big thing. It has multiplier effect. Celebs attract more users. The problem of content moderation is hushed off as ‘these things are on every platform’, or ‘we have a mechanism where people can report it.’
Basically, nothing happens because they don’t feel the heat. The pressure of society or policy should be good enough so that they employ more people and do proper content review.
Chinese apps and Big data
Apart from hiding under UGC (user generated content) thing and throwing all responsibility on the users, they also engage in serious data theft. Users give up thousands of MBs of data to these apps. Try to install any Chinese app on Android based phones and ask yourselves, why does an app need access to your SMS, contacts, photos, media and even keystrokes? Ask yourselves.
Unknowingly, the users fall prey to sinister motives of these Chinese companies who are working hard to control markets (and lives through big data) by selling your info to companies that make products. They sell your behaviour, likes and dislikes, interests and even movement.
They have serious privacy issues. In fact, several apps have that. That is altogether another aspect, but to warn you a bit more, let me explain it quickly. Android phones have this ‘speed up’, ‘boost speed’, ‘phone cleaner’ type of apps. Do you know how it works?
They get access to everything on your phone, they even tell you that there is 1.7 GB of data ti be cleaned and show you a sign of rocket taking you data pretty fast. Well, that rocket is going to China. The whole cleaning process is a way to take all you information from you and upload that on servers. Later, it is sold to Alibaba, Amazon or any company which requires that.
Ban TikTok till they show a way to deal with this menace
TikTok does have a fun aspect to it, a platform for expression, a voice for the unheard… We have seen what it can do to those who have been ignored or never had a voice. It does have a creative aspect as well.
But, the negatives are many.
The predominant display of suggestive sex, perversion, sexism, misogyny, verbal pornography, morphed/edited misuse of use content, misinformation, religious extremism, domestic violence, male violence, forced behaviour… is just too much to let it slide.
Banning is the only solution, but that has to be on all subsequent similar platforms where content audit is pathetic. Banning TikTok is only possible solution because they don’t seem to have the technology to identify violations quoted above.
When they have the tech, they should do a public demo that someone is posting a video and, in real time, that video is analysed and allowed, or held for review, before it appears to millions. Or, they can employ thousands of reviewers, identify viral audio signatures, videos and prioritise them in audit, delay posting of content till review is done.
If you can’t ensure that, they have no right to give this sugar-coated slow-poison to users.