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Explained: Why TikTok’s algorithms, content moderation models are being audited

Oracle will begin auditing TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models to check for links with the Chinese government. What is this audit, and why is TikTok facing this scrutiny?

Tik Tok auditAccording to the report, Oracle’s audit is designed to check for TikTok’s links with the Chinese government. (File Photo)

TikTok might be the world’s most popular short-video platform, but it continues to face scrutiny from regulators across the world over its ties with the Chinese government. According to a report by US publication Axios, Oracle will begin auditing TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation models. TikTok confirmed this in a statement to Axios. What is this audit, and why is TikTok facing this scrutiny?

Why are TikTok’s algorithms facing an audit?

According to the report, Oracle’s audit is designed to check for TikTok’s links with the Chinese government. In the past, there have been reports that TikTok tried to ban or censor videos which mentioned “Tiananmen Square,” “Tibetan independence”. Report also said TikTok would downplay videos with political speech. It was also reported in the past that it tried to hide content from users considered not attractive enough, or those who were poor or disabled.

While TikTok has denied most of these reports in the past, it has come under more scrutiny in the US, with the Senate Intelligence Committee looking into links with the Chinese government.

The scrutiny increased after a Buzzfeed report in July this year that showed that internal documents confirmed that China repeatedly accessed US data. The report claimed engineers in China had access to US users’ data. In a written response to US Senators, TikTok dismissed the Buzzfeed allegations as untrue.

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During his time in office, former US President Donald Trump had threatened to ban TikTok over its “links” with the Chinese government.

So how does this audit help TikTok?

TikTok – owned by Chinese major ByteDance – needs to prove that its app and algorithms are not controlled or accessed by the Chinese government. In June, TikTok had announced it would shift all US user data to Oracle’s infrastructure. According to Axios, TikTok is taking these initiatives under its Project Texas, which it had announced on June 30, 2022 in a letter to US Senators.

According to the letter, Project Texas is meant to “help build trust with users and key stakeholders”, as well as make progress regarding compliance with the US government.

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TikTok said Project Texas is meant to ensure that the company “fully” safeguards “user data and US national security interests”.

In the letter, TikTok also claimed it stores “100% US user data by default in the Oracle cloud environment”, adding that it was working with “Oracle on new, advanced data security controls that we hope to finalise in the near future”.

TikTok hopes that with Oracle regularly auditing its algorithms, there will be some faith that its algorithm is not being manipulated by Chinese authorities. It will hope that this will ensure the app does not get banned, or worse, Bytedance is forced to sell its most popular product to a foreign entity.

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But what are the issues with TikTok’s algorithms?

While TikTok hopes to absolve all links with the Chinese government, there have been several reports highlighting that the algorithm and the way it works is problematic. There are allegations that TikTok’s algorithm will serve addictive and dangerous content. For instance, a Wall Street Journal report showed the algorithm is designed to learn more about the users watching habits, and often ends up serving disturbing videos. The WSJ created 100 bots for the purpose, and some of these were served videos which “encouraged eating disorders, sexualized minors, and discussed suicide.”

The investigation revealed TikTok’s recommendation engine – which recommends what video to watch next – is driving most of the content consumed. Then in July this year, parents of two girls who died decided to sue the company over its algorithm serving dangerous content to children. The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County alleges TikTok knew about its product being addictive, but kept “directing children to harmful content,” according to a report in The NYT. The girls died last year after participating in a blackout challenge — where users are encouraged to hold their breath till their passout.

TikTok has tried to deal with some allegations. It had released its own transparency report. In a blog post, it said it will give researchers “accurate ways to identify and assess content and trends or conduct tests of our platform”. TikTok plans to give researchers access to “anonymized data about content and activity” on the platform by later this year. It also plans to give researchers access to more of its content moderation systems.

First published on: 17-08-2022 at 05:35:53 pm
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