TikTok Accused of Discrimination Against Persons With Disabilities

On December 2, TikTok, a social video network, was accused of discriminating against persons with disabilities, including facial disfigurement and Down Syndrome, by limiting their reach. The allegations came from Netzpolitik.org, which spoke to an insider. The company stated the policy was supposed to protect users that faced an increased risk of bullying.

TikTok promotes content through its algorithm, but its policy reduced or eliminated the promotion of users’ content if that user was deemed at risk of bullying. TikTok’s policy createdhad varying categories of censorship. One category meant that videos only appeared in the country they were uploaded; another category, “Auto R” prevented videos from appearing in the “For You” category feed after the video hit a certain viewer threshold.

According to Auto R was applied to individual videos, but for some users, it was the default. Auto R affected a wide range of people. While it covered persons with disabilities, it also encompassed those likely to encounter online bullying. TikTok limited “the reach of ‘fat and self-confident’ users, LGBT users, or users with autism…categories of people particularly likely to face online abuse… these categories could be difficult to judge simply from profiles or videos. And while the policy was meant to prevent bullying, it did so by punishing the likely victims.” TikTok moderators examined and flagged videos for such content while often viewing 30 seconds or less, judging people and videos without complete knowledge. 

“Early on, in response to an increase in bullying on the app, we implemented a blunt and temporary policy,” a spokesperson from ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, said. “While the intention was good, the approach was wrong and we have long since changed the earlier policy in favor of more nuanced anti-bullying policies and in-app protections.”

Some critics believe this is another example of a media company limiting the voices of persons with disabilities. “The regulation listed here transforms this behaviour into new digital platforms in which the visibility of disabled people is deliberately reduced out of misunderstood and unnecessary care,” Constantin Grosch of the organization Abilitywatch.

This is not the first time the company has been criticized for limiting videos. TikTok was previously accused of limiting the reach of videos that would offend the Chinese government. It hired K&L Gates earlier this year to advise revisions to its moderation policy.