TikTok’s new CEO faces his first challenge—navigating America’s police brutality protests

Words can only go so far.
Words can only go so far.
Image: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson -
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TikTok’s new CEO Kevin Mayer faced a major test on his very first day on the job—assuring Americans the platform isn’t suppressing the visibility of videos linked to the police brutality protests across the US.

The Disney veteran took over the reins from the app’s former head, Alex Zhu, yesterday (June 1), as part of the platform’s efforts to show American users and lawmakers that despite its Chinese links, it’s operating by American standards.  On the same day it issued an apology responding to concerns from black users that they were being marginalized as videos of the police brutality protests that erupted across the US last week, such as those hashtagged #blacklivesmatter, showed up as having received zero views.

“We acknowledge and apologize to our Black creators and community who have felt unsafe, unsupported, or suppressed. We don’t ever want anyone to feel that way. We welcome the voices of the Black community wholeheartedly,” Vanessa Pappas, TikTok US general manager, and Kudzi Chikumbu, director of creator community, wrote in the apology, which blamed a technical glitch for the incorrect 0 view count. “Nevertheless, we understand that many assumed this bug to be an intentional act to suppress the experiences and invalidate the emotions felt by the Black community. And we know we have work to do to regain and repair that trust.”

The protests in the US broke out in response to anger over George Floyd, the 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes while arresting him on May 25. The death has been ruled a homicide and the officer, Derek Chauvin, has been arrested on murder charges.

US lawmakers have for the past year worried about the possible censorship of political content on TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based startup ByteDance. The company censors content in China according to government guidelines, including on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. But in comparison with the scarce presence of videos on the Hong Kong protests, which raised alarm bells in the US, thousands of videos featuring mass demonstrations in cities from Minneapolis to New York have been uploaded to the app. Many of the clips showed clashes between the police and protesters, while some showed shops that appear to have been looted.

Overall, videos with hashtags related to the protests, including #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd, have been viewed over 2 billion times on the app, according to the company.

Complaints about lack of visibility for black creators on the platform predated the protests.

Mayer issued his own message on the topic on TikTok.

“As I begin my work at TikTok, it has never been a more important time to support Black employees, users, creators, artists and our broader community,” Mayer said in a separate post on TikTok on Monday. “…Words can only go so far. I invite our community to hold us accountable for the actions we take over the coming weeks, months, and years.”

Further positioning itself as a company invested in America, TikTok said in its apology it shared “the pain our country is in” and promised to donate $4 million dollars to fight racial injustice in the US. It will also take part in Blackout Tuesday, a US music industry campaign to protest against police brutality, by turning off all of its playlists and campaigns on its Sounds page tomorrow.

While TikTok’s outreach at a particular fraught time in America might generate some goodwill, the real challenge for the executive has only just started. TikTok’s popularity in the US soared around 2018—as relations with China were taking a nosedive. That has led to intense scrutiny in the US, and fears that it could be a national security threat, for example if it were to share user data with its parent company. TikTok has said it strongly protects user data—and rejects the claim it censors content.

“Mayer’s big challenge is the fact that relations between China and the US have deteriorated to a level not seen since the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Protests,” an Asian-American tech executive with almost two decades’ experience in China and Japan told Quartz. Added to that “he has to grow the business during a pandemic when advertisers are scarce and social media is both a weapon and entertainment, depending on the viewer and the creator.”

Meanwhile, on Chinese social network Weibo, some contrasted (link in Chinese) the wokeness TikTok is showing in the US with Douyin’s approach in China.

“TikTok is practicing social justice, while Douyin is busy with censoring and silencing [users]. This highly divided situation reflects the times we are in,” said a user commenting (link in Chinese) on TikTok’s apology.