A 17-year-old TikTok user from New Jersey whose account was suspended following a viral video she posted decrying China’s human rights abuses says she will continue to share politically charged content on the popular Chinese-owned social media app.
“I’m not scared of TikTok,” Feroza Aziz told the BBC News this week.
After coming under scrutiny for Aziz’s suspension, TikTok apologized to the teen on Wednesday for making an “error” in restricting her account and said it had fully restored her access to the app. The company, owned by Chinese tech conglomerate Bytedance, also stressed TikTok’s commitment to providing a “safe, positive and welcoming environment” for users while also protecting users’ “freedom of creative expression.”
But Aziz says she’s unconvinced by the company’s apology and promises.
“TikTok is trying to cover up this whole mess. I won’t let them get away with this,” she told The Washington Post.
The kerfuffle over Aziz’s TikTok account began on Saturday when the Afghan-American teen posted a series of clips which, at first glance, appeared to be a beauty tutorial but quickly evolved into an advocacy video urging people to learn more about the plight facing Uighur Muslims.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Tuesday that recently leaked Chinese government documents confirmed that “the Chinese Communist Party is committing human rights violations and abuses against” Uighur Muslims and other minority groups “in mass detention.” Beijing has long denied any wrongdoing.
In her TikTok videos, Aziz, who is Muslim, describes how innocent Uighurs are being thrown into “concentration camps” in China’s Xinjiang province. “This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it,” she says.
The videos, which Aziz also posted on her Twitter and Instagram accounts, quickly went viral. The clips have reportedly been viewed millions of times to date across different platforms.
Two days after posting the clips, Aziz revealed that TikTok had suspended her account.
“China is scared of the truth spreading,” the teen wrote on Twitter. “Let’s keep scaring them and spread the truth. Save the Muslims.”
TikTok pushed back against the suggestion that it had blocked Aziz’s account for political reasons, telling BBC that it “does not moderate content due to political sensitivities” outside of China. As BBC noted, China’s strict censorship rules would apply to Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.
Eric Han, TikTok’s head of safety in the U.S., later said that Aziz’s account had not been suspended for the Uigher video but for a different clip she’d created using a separate TikTok account which had included a photo of al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden.
That second account had been banned, Han said, “in line with TikTok’s policies against content that includes imagery related to terrorist figures.”
Han explained that that since Aziz’s banned account was associated with the same mobile device as the account she used to post the Uighur video, she was locked out of both accounts from her device. But, Han noted, the account which had the Uighur video had remained active and the account’s videos had continued to receive views.
Han admitted that the viral Uighur videos had been deleted from the app for about 50 minutes on Wednesday morning, but he attributed that deletion to “human moderation error” and said the clips were immediately re-posted after the mistake was discovered.
The teen’s access to her TikTok accounts was also fully reinstated, he said.
Aziz ― who told the Post that the bin Laden image had been used satirically in a tongue-in-cheek video about dating ― said in a tweet on Wednesday night that she was skeptical of TikTok’s explanation.
“Do I believe they took it away because of a unrelated satirical video that was deleted on a previous deleted account of mine? Right after I finished posting a 3 part video about the Uyghurs? No,” she wrote.
A China researcher for Human Rights Watch told BBC that TikTok’s opaque user policies should be scrutinized.
“It is hard for outsiders to know the real reasons for the suspension of Aziz’s account,” Yaqiu Wa told the outlet. “TikTok does not make public the data on the videos it removes or the users it suspends, or the artificial intelligence tools it uses to determine the removals and suspensions.”
“While TikTok has repeatedly stressed that it does not take orders from the Chinese government in terms of what content it promotes or removes outside of China, it has done little to quench the suspicion, given that all Chinese companies are not only accountable to its shareholders, but also to the Chinese Communist Party,” Wa continued.
TikTok said in its statement this week that it plans to release its first transparency report, as well as a more robust version of its community guidelines, “within the next two months.”
On her part, Aziz says she won’t be deterred by the TikTok suspension and will continue to speak up about China’s abuses against the Uighur community.
“This won’t silence me,” she tweeted Tuesday.