China

I helped build ByteDance's censorship machine

I wasn't proud of it, and neither were my coworkers. But that's life in today's China.

I helped build ByteDance's censorship machine

A view from outside ByteDance's headquarters in Beijing.


Emmanuel Wong
/ Contributor via Getty Images

This is the story of Li An, a pseudonymous former employee at ByteDance, as told to Protocol's Shen Lu.

It was the night Dr. Li Wenliang struggled for his last breath in the emergency room of Wuhan Central Hospital. I, like many Chinese web users, had stayed awake to refresh my Weibo feed constantly for updates on his condition. Dr. Li was an ophthalmologist who sounded the alarm early in the COVID-19 outbreak. He soon faced government intimidation and then contracted the virus. When he passed away in the early hours of Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, I was among many Chinese netizens who expressed grief and outrage at the events on Weibo, only to have my account deleted.

I felt guilt more than anger. At the time, I was a tech worker at ByteDance, where I helped develop tools and platforms for content moderation. In other words, I had helped build the system that censored accounts like mine. I was helping to bury myself in China's ever-expanding cyber grave.

I hadn't received explicit directives about Li Wenliang, but Weibo was certainly not the only Chinese tech company relentlessly deleting posts and accounts that night. I knew ByteDance's army of content moderators were using the tools and algorithms that I helped develop to delete content, change the narrative and alter memories of the suffering and trauma inflicted on Chinese people during the COVID-19 outbreak. I couldn't help but feel every day like I was a tiny cog in a vast, evil machine.

ByteDance is one of China's largest unicorns and creator of short video-sharing app TikTok, its original Chinese version Douyin and news aggregator Toutiao. Last year, when ByteDance was at the center of U.S. controversy over data-sharing with Beijing, it cut its domestic engineers' access to products overseas, including TikTok. TikTok has plans to launch two physical Transparency Centers in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., to showcase content moderation practices. But in China, content moderation is mostly kept in the shadows.

I was on a central technology team that supports the Trust and Safety team, which sits within ByteDance's core data department. The data department is mainly devoted to developing technologies for short-video platforms. As of early 2020, the technologies we created supported the entire company's content moderation in and outside China, including Douyin at home and its international equivalent, TikTok. About 50 staff worked on the product team and between 100 to 150 software engineers worked on the technical team. Additionally, ByteDance employed about 20,000 content moderators to monitor content in China. They worked at what are known internally as "bases" (基地) in Tianjin, Chengdu (in Sichuan), Jinan (in Shandong) and other cities. Some were ByteDance employees, others contractors.

My job was to use technology to make the low-level content moderators' work more efficient. For example, we created a tool that allowed them to throw a video clip into our database and search for similar content.

When I was at ByteDance, we received multiple requests from the bases to develop an algorithm that could automatically detect when a Douyin user spoke Uyghur, and then cut off the livestream session. The moderators had asked for this because they didn't understand the language. Streamers speaking ethnic languages and dialects that Mandarin-speakers don't understand would receive a warning to switch to Mandarin. If they didn't comply, moderators would respond by manually cutting off the livestreams, regardless of the actual content. But when it comes to Uyghur, with an algorithm that did this automatically, the moderators wouldn't have to be responsible for missing content that authorities could deem to have instigated "separatism" or "terrorism." We eventually decided not to do it: We didn't have enough Uyghur language data points in our system, and the most popular livestream rooms were already closely monitored.

The truth is, political speech comprised a tiny fraction of deleted content. Chinese netizens are fluent in self-censorship and know what not to say. ByteDance's platforms — Douyin, Toutiao, Xigua and Huoshan — are mostly entertainment apps. We mostly censored content the Chinese government considers morally hazardous — pornography, lewd conversations, nudity, graphic images and curse words — as well as unauthorized livestreaming sales and content that violated copyright.

But political speech still looms large. What Chinese user-generated content platforms most fear is failing to delete politically sensitive content that later puts the company under heavy government scrutiny. It's a life-and-death matter. Occasionally, ByteDance's content moderation system would go down for a few minutes. It was nerve-wracking because we didn't know what kind of political disaster could occur in that window. As a young unicorn, ByteDance does not have strong government relationships like other tech giants do, so it's walking a tightrope every second.

The team I was part of, content moderation policymakers, plus the army of about 20,000 content moderators, have helped shield ByteDance from major political repercussions and achieve commercial success. ByteDance's powerful algorithms not only can make precise predictions and recommend content to users — one of the things it's best known for in the rest of the world — but can also assist content moderators with swift censorship. Not many tech companies in China have so many resources dedicated to moderating content. Other user-generated content platforms in China have nothing on ByteDance.

Many of my colleagues felt uneasy about what we were doing. Some of them had studied journalism in college. Some were graduates of top universities. They were well-educated and liberal-leaning. We would openly talk from time to time about how our work aided censorship. But we all felt that there was nothing we could do.

A dim light of idealism still burned, of course. Perhaps it was naive of me — I had thought if I tried a bit harder, maybe I could "raise the muzzle of the gun an inch," as they say in Chinese: to let a bit more speech sneak through. Eventually, I learned how limited my influence really was.

When it comes to day-to-day censorship, the Cyberspace Administration of China would frequently issue directives to ByteDance's Content Quality Center (内容质量中心), which oversees the company's domestic moderation operation: sometimes over 100 directives a day. They would then task different teams with applying the specific instructions to both ongoing speech and to past content, which needed to be searched to determine whether it was allowed to stand.

During livestreaming shows, every audio clip would be automatically transcribed into text, allowing algorithms to compare the notes with a long and constantly-updated list of sensitive words, dates and names, as well as Natural Language Processing models. Algorithms would then analyze whether the content was risky enough to require individual monitoring.

If a user mentioned a sensitive term, a content moderator would receive the original video clip and the transcript showing where the term appeared. If the moderator deemed the speech sensitive or inappropriate, they would shut down the ongoing livestreaming session and even suspend or delete the account. Around politically sensitive holidays, such as Oct. 1 (China's National Day), July 1 (the birthday of the Chinese Communist Party) or major political anniversaries like the anniversary of the 1989 protests and crackdown in Tiananmen Square, the Content Quality Center would generate special lists of sensitive terms for content moderators to use. Influencers enjoyed some special treatment — there were content moderators assigned specifically to monitor certain influencers' channels in case their content or accounts were mistakenly deleted. Some extremely popular influencers, state media and government agencies were on a ByteDance-generated white list, free from any censorship — their compliance was assumed.

Colleagues on my team were not in direct contact with content moderators or internet regulators. The Content Quality Center came up with moderation guidelines and worked directly with base managers on implementation. After major events or sensitive anniversaries, colleagues from the operational side would debrief everyone on what worked and what needed improvement. We were in those meetings to see what we could do to better support the censorship operation.

Our role was to make sure that low-level content moderators could find "harmful and dangerous content" as soon as possible, just like fishing out needles from an ocean. And we were tasked with improving censorship efficiency. That is, use as few people as possible to detect as much content as possible that violated ByteDance's community guidelines. I do not recall any major political blowback from the Chinese government during my time at ByteDance, meaning we did our jobs.

It was certainly not a job I'd tell my friends and family about with pride. When they asked what I did at ByteDance, I usually told them I deleted posts (删帖). Some of my friends would say, "Now I know who gutted my account." The tools I helped create can also help fight dangers like fake news. But in China, one primary function of these technologies is to censor speech and erase collective memories of major events, however infrequently this function gets used.

Dr. Li warned his colleagues and friends about an unknown virus that was encroaching on hospitals in Wuhan. He was punished for that. And for weeks, we had no idea what was really happening because of authorities' cover-up of the severity of the crisis. Around this time last year, many Chinese tech companies were actively deleting posts, videos, diaries and pictures that were not part of the "correct collective memory" that China's governments would later approve. Just imagine: Had any social media platform been able to reject the government's censorship directives and retain Dr. Li and other whistleblowers' warnings, perhaps millions of lives would have been saved today.

SKOREA-ENTERTAINMENT-GAMING-MICROSOFT-XBOX
A visitor plays a game using Microsoft's Xbox controller at a flagship store of SK Telecom in Seoul on November 10, 2020. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP) (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

On this episode of the Source Code podcast: Nick Statt joins the show to discuss Microsoft’s $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, and what it means for the tech and game industries. Then, Issie Lapowsky talks about a big week in antitrust reform, and whether real progress is being made in the U.S. Finally, Hirsh Chitkara explains why AT&T, Verizon, the FAA and airlines have been fighting for months about 5G coverage.

For more on the topics in this episode:

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

COVID-19 accelerated what many CEOs and CTOs have struggled to do for the past decade: It forced organizations to be agile and adjust quickly to change. For all the talk about digital transformation over the past decade, when push came to shove, many organizations realized they had made far less progress than they thought.

Now with the genie of rapid change out of the bottle, we will never go back to accepting slow and steady progress from our organizations. To survive and thrive in times of disruption, you need to build a resilient, adaptable business with systems and processes that will keep you nimble for years to come. An essential part of business agility is responding to change by quickly developing new applications and adapting old ones. IT faces an unprecedented demand for new applications. According to IDC, by 2023, more than 500 million digital applications and services will be developed and deployed — the same number of apps that were developed in the last 40 years.[1]

Keep Reading Show less
Denise Broady, CMO, Appian
Denise oversees the Marketing and Communications organization where she is responsible for accelerating the marketing strategy and brand recognition across the globe. Denise has over 24+ years of experience as a change agent scaling businesses from startups, turnarounds and complex software companies. Prior to Appian, Denise worked at SAP, WorkForce Software, TopTier and Clarkston Group. She is also a two-time published author of “GRC for Dummies” and “Driven to Perform.” Denise holds a double degree in marketing and production and operations from Virginia Tech.
Policy

Congress’ antitrust push has a hate speech problem

Sen. Klobuchar’s antitrust bill is supposed to promote competition. So why are advocates afraid it could also promote extremists?

The bill as written could make it a lot riskier for large tech companies to deplatform or demote companies that violate their rules.

Photo: Photo by Elizabeth Frantz-Pool/Getty Images

The antitrust bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday and is now headed to the Senate floor is, at its core, an attempt to prevent the likes of Apple, Amazon and Google from boosting their own products and services on the marketplaces and platforms they own.

But upon closer inspection, some experts say, the bill as written could make it a lot riskier for large tech companies to deplatform or demote companies that violate their rules.

Keep Reading Show less
Issie Lapowsky

Issie Lapowsky ( @issielapowsky) is Protocol's chief correspondent, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. She also oversees Protocol's fellowship program. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University's Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Workplace

Ask a tech worker: How many of your colleagues have caught omicron?

Millions of workers called in sick in recent weeks. How is tech handling it?

A record number of Americans called in sick with COVID-19 in recent weeks. Even with high vaccination rates, tech companies aren’t immune.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Welcome back to Ask a Tech Worker! For this recurring feature, I’ve been roaming downtown San Francisco at lunchtime to ask tech employees about how the workplace is changing. This week, I caught up with tech workers about what their companies are doing to avoid omicron outbreaks, and whether many of their colleagues had been out sick lately. Got an idea for a future topic? Email me.

Omicron stops for no one, it seems. Between Dec. 29 and Jan. 10, 8.8 million Americans missed work to either recover from COVID-19 or care for someone who was recovering, according to the Census Bureau. That number crushed the previous record of 6.6 million from last January, and tripled the numbers from early last month.

Keep Reading Show less
Allison Levitsky
Allison Levitsky is a reporter at Protocol covering workplace issues in tech. She previously covered big tech companies and the tech workforce for the Silicon Valley Business Journal. Allison grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from UC Berkeley.

The fast-growing paychecks of Big Tech’s biggest names

Tech giants had a huge pandemic, and their execs are getting paid.

TIm Cook received $82 million in stock awards on top of his $3 million salary as Apple's CEO.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Tech leaders are making more than ever.

As tech giants thrive amid the pandemic, companies like Meta, Alphabet and Microsoft have continued to pay their leaders accordingly: Big Tech CEO pay is higher than ever. In the coming months, we’ll begin seeing a lot of companies release their executive compensation from the past year as fiscal 2022 begins.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht
Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.
Latest Stories
Bulletins