TikTok Isn't Only For Teenagers Lip-syncing: It's Also Used To Unravel Human Rights Atrocities in China

The unintended consequences of tech. I’m currently working on a small blog post about @samim’s talk here, which dives into the negative unexpected consequences of tech.

And the negative effects of tech is something I usually always think about first:

But sometimes, the tech is either used as it’s supposed to, as the increase in mesh networks during the Hong Kong protests shows, or there’s TikTok that doesn’t only show “Snappy, Short, Cut to pop music” videos.

For this report, my colleague Isobel Cockerell at Coda Story spend months on the weird corners of the internet and talked with Uyghurs in exile who scout the Chinese TikTok for clues about what is happening in Xinjiang.

A little bit of back-story: Xinjiang, China is an information vacuum. With reports of a million Uyghurs in detention, plus censorship, surveillance and a blackout on outside communication, it’s hard to know what’s happening. But some TikTok users have started using the app to share visual clues about life under Xinjiang surveillance. That’s why international Uyghur activists are digging deep into TikTok & similar apps. They’ve found videos that show China’s ongoing destruction of Uyghur and other Muslim architecture, checkpoints with long lines of Uyghurs waiting to go through, and videos of crying people in front of pictures of their relatives. Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, is behind China’s firewall. To gain entry, international Uyghur activists have to use Chinese phones. To find compromising content from Xinjiang TikTok, the Uyghur activists “game” the app’s algorithm, which serves them content according to how they respond to each video. Searching isn’t an option. Location-based TikTok search results are cleaned up by moderators. But still, videos make it through, and are downloaded by the activists and then reshared on other social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, so they don’t disappear. Read the full thread here.

TikTok - obviously - wasn’t made to share human rights violations, but for some it has become the only tool to let the world know what’s happening.

Do you have any other examples of a “positive” unintended use of an app or website?


Thanks for sharing! Wired also did a write-up of her work here: https://www.wired.com/story/tiktok-is-the-latest-window-into-chinas-police-state/


Ha, that’s my colleagues piece, which was republished by Wired with Coda Story’s permission :slight_smile: great you read it there


Interesting article. One of the less discussed “features” of mass communication and the internet is that we each, individually, are not wired to process the amount of information we receive. Why would we be? There is nothing even close in history where so much conflicting information is pounded into our brains. Even the terms “positive” and “negative” lose some meaning since the two are actually connected - especially these days when you cannot tell who is working for the Internet Research Agency and other governments or movements…from who is not.
As as example, the OP " developing smart cities ([but what about authoritarian regimes?]" - what about them? In China 700+ million people have been taken out of poverty and now have food on the table and a lifespan as long as Europe and the USA. That is virtually a miracle never before achieved in human history.
Now they, and others, are dealing with the “positive/negative” consequences of religion (See: History of Europe, etc.) and are making decisions which they feel will best serve the People as a whole (hopefully).
While many in the West may be surprised at the idea of of censored internet - just the same, we have to deal with mass shooters and their manifestos and their “free speech” circulating much further and easier. It’s as if our openness is being used against us since this very openness usually means big tech is controlled by large Corporations and Governments…
The more I see (and I have been online since 1986) the more I appreciate models like Craigslist…it would be great if Craig (not me, of course!) created an alternative twitter. We could all help!
I know I am not providing a specific example as asked in the OP - partially because there are so many of them. Most all mass communication allows for this - even the telephone, that put us all in touch, then allowed for everything from scams to people being much more crude to each other. Just look at most historical letter writing - the primary source before the telephone, to see how civil the conversation used to be!

I’m afraid the answer is that we have to waddle though all the negative consequences and that, in the end, the internet may not be as “free” as the well behaved among us had thought. Humans, in general, need to be kept in a sandbox of some sort in order not to go off the rails.

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@Craigimass, I just re-read this insightful post.

It has long been a conundrum as to how “community standards” apply when local and universal are joined. It is so different from anything prior that it has not been figured out, except to censor or to come up with judicial rulings favoring either local or universal. Neither really works right.

One could say that rules and laws are a form of collective self-censorship (if the people devise them of course), and generally that system has worked when the players in power act with fairness. But this is different.

Speaking of unintended consequences, which is a main point of this topic, and Craig Newmark, I am quite sure he won’t be starting a new service for the masses. His Foundation gives heavily to evolving journalism and keeping it vital. He never set out to create something that would cause newsrooms all over the world to fire large amounts of people, but that is what happened when newspapers lost their classifieds revenue to a nearly-free service. I applaud his conscience on this matter and regard him as exemplary in this way.

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