It was the exact sort of situation where a social media app could come in handy for an activist.
In late July, a TikTok user and Indigenous educator who goes by the handle @quiiroi was in far northern Minnesota, protesting the Line 3 oil pipeline, a massive project to replace an ageing pipeline in the region with a new one that runs near or through multiple native nations and pristine wilderness, as well as crossing the Mississippi River.
In the middle of a combined prayer ceremony and protest, a group of riot police crashed the demonstration, roughing up protesters and sending more than 20 people to jail.
“About halfway during the ceremony, I went to sit down and take a break, I hear screams [and] I come rushing with my camera, I immediately [turned] my live stream on. Police were there holding a line,” they told the Daily Dot. “They showed up with tear gas and rubber bullets and guns. We’re in camping gear. I was wearing this camisole and flip flops. And a bandana to keep the sun off the top of my head. Why are [the police] in riot gear?”
Soon after posting a stream of the encounter, their account was banned for more than a week without explanation, the latest in a string of allegations from marginalised communities that the wildly popular, Chinese-owned social media apps is censoring certain kinds of perspectives.
“This is a physical and spiritual battle,” Quiiroi, whose non-political videos sometimes attract hundreds of thousands of views, added. “We need help. I’m blessed to have a platform. I was using it for good, and then TikTok took it away.”
The Independent has reached out to TikTok for comment.
Native activists challenging the new pipeline project, which critics say will exacerbate societal reliance on climate-damaging fossil fuels, aren’t the only ones who say they’ve been unfairly sidelined.
TikTok users making posts about how to spot and stop Nazi and alt-right imagery have reported that trolls were able to get their videos taken down, and Black TikTokers have said they’ve experienced bans or precipitous losses in views when posting about Black Lives Matter.
Reporting from outlets like The Guardian and The Intercept have revealed leaked moderation guidelines from the app, barring videos about controversial topics in China like Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence, and Uighurs have reportedly had their content removed after posting about China’s systematic discrimination and imprisonment of the minority group. (TikTok has said its Chinese censorship rules don’t apply to international versions of the app, and has previously said it “unequivocally” does not “shadow ban” or otherwise single out certain groups.)
Last spring, The Intercept reported on moderation guidelines that went as far as suppressing posts by people deemed “too ugly, poor, or disabled” to merit high visibility on the app. (The company said the guidelines were either outdated or not put into practice.)
Ethical and security concerns around the app have spurred legislators like Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer to call for federal agencies to ban their employees from using TikTok, which the Transportation Security Agency did last year.