For the first time, it’s possible to get a sense of what TikTok thinks its biggest public impression issues are thanks to leaked internal documents. China is at the top of the list.
TikTok Master Messaging and TikTok Key Messages are the titles of the PR materials that Gizmodo was able to access from within the firm. In both cases, press talking points are explained in English and then translated into another European language. For the sake of confidentiality, Gizmodo is not disclosing which language is being used in this text.) The 53-page TikTok Master Messaging document, which is the longer of the two, details the most important themes the firm wishes to convey to the general audience. Although it was last updated in August of 2021, the dossier has undergone numerous revisions since its creation in March of 2020.
How about at or near the top? Downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay China’s relationship with AI. To emphasise TikTok as a brand/platform, the third, fourth, and fifth bullet points appear on the document’s second, third, and fourth lines. “The app is only for customers aged 13 and up,” the corporation tells its employees in a follow-up document. Even outside of TikTok’s responses to everyday news stories, the documents have significant sway. An executive from the corporation spoke before the UK parliament and sent letters of recommendation to US senator, using language identical to what is found here. When asked about the leaked materials, TikTok refused to respond.
Apple and Google have been urged by an FCC commissioner to remove TikTok from their app stores because of the connection, and this issue has been brought up numerous times throughout TikTok PR docs. There are soundbites about “China/Bytedance Ownership” in the 15-page TikTok Key Messages document that was developed in February 2021 for TikTok’s public relations team.
These are some of the soundbites: “There’s a lot of misinformation out there regarding TikTok right now. The TikTok app isn’t even available in China, which is a sad fact. Responses from TikTok were peppered with references to this talking point.
In the event that the Chinese government asked us to divulge user data, we would not do so. In retaliation for BuzzFeed News, TikTok used this one. To further limit access to user data, “we have a lot of protections in place, and we continue to expand them out.” It was posted on TikTok’s official blog. A list of “proof points” for TikTok PRs is included in the document, which includes: “TikTok is a worldwide firm.”
“TikTok isn’t even available in China,” says one user.
As a result, TikTok enjoys a great deal of autonomy in the day-to-day operations of the company.” Employees have access to a list of possible queries and stock responses in the Master Messaging document. For example, if a PR representative wonders “What is Bytedance’s relationship to its individual products, such as TikTok and Toutiao?”, the PR is given the answer: “Bytedance is the holding company for TikTok.” Employees of TikTok are unable to post on ByteDance. “ByteDance” is what we’ll be referring to. The document goes on to explain the history of ByteDance under the headline “DO NOT USE.”
There is a lot of information being distributed about TikTok in the longer document. There’s no doubt about it: ” “TikTok has an American CEO, a head of security with decades of experience in the US military and law enforcement, and a US staff that works tirelessly and responsibly on the consistent improvement of the security infrastructure,” is the advice given to PRs in the memo. Several of the world’s most prominent global investors are on the board of directors of our parent company.
Later in the document, the corporation instructs its PR personnel to avoid mentioning the supposedly younger (and cooler) demographic of its users. According to our terms and conditions, we recommend that you only use this app if you are at least 13 years old. For this reason, we can refer to our customers as young people rather than children.
TikTok may be for the Olds, according to an internal statistic highlighted in the document. “The vast majority of our users are between the ages of 16 and 25. ” More than six out of ten users are over the age of 25.”
PRs can also avoid awkward inquiries regarding whether or not those young users are using their parents’ money to buy livestreaming goods. When asked about a spending limit, the memo instructs firm representatives to answer, “We have a spending cap in the app.” (This is the first time this information has been made public.)
TikTok, on the other hand, is wary about inviting examination of its algorithms and how they determine what is viewed or heard on its platform. An emphasised, red bullet point reads: “No algo chatter – tailored content stream stimulates fresh music discovery” in the document’s “Music” section.
Additionally, the business has prepared answers to frequently asked questions concerning past content filtering choices, such as the leaked rules from 2019 suggesting that information related to the Tiananmen Square upheaval would not be promoted through the app. As a result of this, the corporation has adopted a policy of “downplaying the China association.”
The Master Messaging paper recommends that PR representatives explain, “In the early days, we structured our regulations more restrictively in order to minimise disagreements.” That was not the correct strategy for TikTok’s quick worldwide expansion last year,” the company says. Local teams have a better awareness of their markets, therefore we offered them more of a voice in this process because of this. […] The last year has seen us jettison certain regulations that were not fit for different markets as we developed our local teams.”
The Key Messages document reiterates this point in a more condensed form. Since our platform is nearly three years old, we’re able to compete with some of the world’s largest companies. This is something we take very seriously. We made mistakes with our moderation standards in the beginning, and we’re sorry for that,” the guide urges PRs to say. “Our local staff has complete control over our content policy and implementation in this country.”
Content moderation language in the Master and Key Messaging documents is very similar to testimony given by TikTok’s director of government relations and public policy in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa to the UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sports select committee in September 2020. Language The language that TikTok’s PR team is advising them to use in their correspondence with US senators in response to their concerns about the company’s data access procedures is quite similar to that used in those letters. Many apps collect data, and the document advises PRs indicate that we are on par with or less than many others. Key Messages paper contains a European translation of this statement with a remark that reads: Data collected by us is comparable to what our competitors are collecting, and, in many situations, it is less, according to the document. Some of our competitors, for example, acquire location data in a more targeted manner. Not us. Let us show you how we stack up against our peers in the industry. We take great effort to ensure the security of your personal information.
Master Messaging’s version history reveals that other internal publications, such as “TikTok Master Messaging – Europe” and “Commercial Messaging and FAQ” and “Ops Messaging and FAQ,” were used to create the document. These documents were not made available to Gizmodo.
When pressed about the documents, TikTok refused to provide any details. The Master Messaging document’s history in Google Docs suggests that it was created by a number of different departments of the company. A total of about a dozen people had worked on it at some point, and six of them were either still working at TikTok or had previously worked there. One of the documents created in February 2021 on Lark, a productivity suite built by ByteDance, featured comments from three users.
Competing IT giants are astonished by the document’s content, according to one PR official. It’s “revealing” not how many complex subjects the TikTok team are dealing with, but rather how little fundamental information the company is willing to let its PR staff use to address simple inquiries,” they argue. “No one in PR wants a doc like this wind up in public.”
According to the tech PR firm, TikTok is at a disadvantage because of a lack of information. In order to be considered seriously, a PR must be able to answer basic inquiries – even to the scale of “dozens” or “hundreds” – when discussing more challenging matters.