Inside TikTok’s Attempts to ‘Downplay the China Association’

Inside TikTok’s Attempts to ‘Downplay the China Association’
Photo: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP, Getty Images

Leaked documents from within TikTok reveal how the company games out responses to tricky questions — and highlight what the company thinks its biggest public perception problems are. Chief among them: China.

The PR documents, which Gizmodo obtained from within the company, are titled “TikTok Master Messaging” and “TikTok Key Messages.” Both are explanations of press talking points in English and include a version translated into a European language. (Gizmodo is not naming the language to protect the sourcing of the document.) The larger of the two, the 53-page TikTok Master Messaging document, outlines key messages the company wants to present to the public. The dossier’s version history shows it was last updated in August 2021 but had been consistently altered since it was created in March 2020.

Right near the top of the list? “Downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, downplay AI.” All three bullet points are the second, third and fourth lines of the document, second only to “Emphasise TikTok as a brand/platform.” Further down, the company advises its employees to stress that, though young people love TikTok, “the app is only for users aged 13 and over.”

The documents are influential even beyond TikTok’s responses to everyday news stories: Language similar to what’s in them appeared in a TikTok executive’s testimony before the United Kingdom’s parliament and in the company’s letters to United States senators. TikTok declined to answer questions about the leaked materials.

The Chinese link is a known issue for TikTok PR — an FCC commissioner asked Apple and Google to remove it from their app stores over the connection in late June — and it comes up frequently across both documents. In the 15-page TikTok Key Messages document, which was created in February 2021, TikTok’s public relations people are given soundbites to address any questions about “China/Bytedance Ownership”.

The soundbites include:

  • “There’s a lot of misinformation about TikTok right now. The reality is that the TikTok app isn’t even available in China.” TikTok used this talking point when responding to the BBC.
  • “We have not and will not share user data with the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked.” TikTok used this one in response to BuzzFeed News.
  • “We have a number of measures in place to significantly reduce access to user data, and we continue to build those out.” TikTok published this talking point on its own blog.

The document goes on to provide “proof points” for TikTok PRs to take, including:

  • “TikTok is a global company”
  • “The TikTok app doesn’t even operate in China.”
  • “TikTok is highly localised in its experience and operations, which means has a lot of independence in the day-to-day operations of the platform.”

In the Master Messaging document, staff are given potential questions they may face from journalists and stock answers to them. Among the questions TikTok PR expects to face: “What is the relationship between Bytedance and its individual products such as TikTok and Toutiao?”, to which the PR is given the response: “Bytedance is the holding company of TikTok. TikTok employees cannot comment on ByteDance. We will refer to ByteDance itself.” Later, under the heading “DO NOT USE,” the document gives staff a high-level briefing of ByteDance’s background.

The longer document also echoes the concern that there’s “a lot of information about TikTok being spread. These are the facts.” The document advises PRs to say, “TikTok has an American CEO, a head of security with decades of experience in the U.S. military and law enforcement, and a U.S. team that works diligently and responsibly on the consistent development of the security infrastructure. Four of the five seats on the Supervisory Board of our parent company are filled by some of the world’s most respected global investors.”

Further down in the document, the company guides its PR staff to shy away from highlighting the age of its users, who are reputed to be younger (and cooler) than those on any other social network. “The app is only for users aged 13 and over, according to our terms and conditions,” the guidance recommends. “Therefore, in relation to our users, we may speak of young people, but not of children.”

The document highlights an internal statistic, one that shows TikTok may, in fact, be for the Olds: “Most of our users are between 16 and 25 years old. 67 per cent of users are older than 25.”

PRs are also helped in heading off tricky questions about whether those young users could be spending mum and dad’s cash on livestreaming gifts. “We have a spending cap in the app,” the document advises company reps to say–before adding: “For internal information only: The spending cap is $US1,000 ($1,388) per day.” (This information has not been previously published.)

TikTok is likewise reticent to invite scrutiny of its algorithms and how they determine what gets seen — or heard. In the “Music” section of the Master Messaging document, highlighted in red is a bullet point reading: “No algo talk – personalised content feed fuels new music discovery”.

The company has also prepared quotes for questions about past moderation decisions, including leaked guidelines in 2019 that suggested content around the Tiananmen Square revolution would not be recommended through the app. They dovetail with the company’s “downplay the China association” strategy.

“In the early days we formulated our rules more restrictively in order to minimise conflicts,” PR representatives are recommended to say in the Master Messaging document. “As TikTok grew rapidly internationally last year, we realised that this was not the right approach. That’s why we gave our local teams a more prominent role in this process, as they have a more differentiated understanding of their respective markets. […] While we built our local teams over the past year, we have also abandoned various regulations that were not appropriate for individual markets.”

That’s echoed in the shorter Key Messages document. “We’re a platform that’s nearly 3 years old and we’re operating in the scale of other big players. We take this responsibility seriously. In the early days, we made mistakes with our moderation policies and we take responsibility for them,” the document advises PRs say. “Our local team has full autonomy to make decisions about our content policies and implementation here.”

The phrasing on content moderation from both the Master and Key Messaging documents sounds very similar to testimony given to the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sports select committee in September 2020 by Theo Bertram, TikTok’s director of government relations and public policy in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Language PR staff are encouraged to use around data privacy also sounds similar to language used in letters to US Senators currently addressing concerns around TikTok’s data access practices. “A lot of apps collect data, and we are on par with, or less than, many others,” the document suggests PRs say. (This sentence, in European translation, appears with a comment of❗️❗️❗️ in the Key Messages document.) “We believe the type of user data that we collect is in line with what our peers collect and in many cases is far less,” the document continues. “For example, many peer companies collect very targeted location data. We don’t. We are happy to compare our practices to what others in the industry do. We take careful measures to protect that data from misuse.”

Version history on the Master Messaging document suggests it has been produced by taking excerpts of other internal documents, including those titled “TikTok Master Messaging – Europe,” “Commercial Messaging and FAQ,” “Ops Messaging and FAQ,” “Music Messaging and FAQ,” and “Marketing Messaging and FAQ.” Gizmodo did not obtain access to these documents.

TikTok did not answer questions about the documents. From its history in Google Docs, the Master Messaging document seems to be the result of collaboration across multiple teams at the company. It had been edited by nearly a dozen different people throughout its existence and included comments from six current or former TikTok employees. The second, Key Messages, document created in February 2021 was hosted on Lark, the productivity suite developed by parent company ByteDance, contained comments from three different users.

One PR representative for a competing big tech company says they’re surprised by the document’s content. “No one in PR wants a doc like this to end up in public, but the revealing thing here is not how many difficult topics the TikTok team are dealing with, rather it’s the lack of basic information the company is willing to let its PR team use to answer simple questions,” they say.

The lack of information puts TikTok PR at a disadvantage, the tech PR claims. “A PR needs to be able to answer basic questions – even if to a scale such as ‘dozens’ or ‘hundreds’ – in order to be taken seriously when talking on more difficult topics.”