TikTok Removed my Evan Gershkovich Videos

Recently, I’ve been playing around with TikTok – posting some videos there, seeing what works, what doesn’t, and how it can be part of The Addition’s offering. I can’t pretend I’m pulling up trees, I haven’t had some big viral hit, but it’s fun making the clips and amazing to see how you can reach people, even with basically no followers. (You can follow me here.) Also, I really enjoy endlessly scrolling on TikTok, so I might as well put that “research” to some use.

Given I write about tech and media, most of my videos are going to be about that in some way or another. While I generally try to keep things light on TikTok, I made a couple of videos that mention Evan Gershkovich, the Wall Street Journal reporter being held in prison in Russia. One video was specifically about him. Another video, about World Press Freedom Day, mentioned his name in passing. Both were instantly removed for “Violating Community Guidelines.” 

On appeal, both videos were allowed back on after a few hours. However, I can’t help but feel though that once is an accident, twice is beginning to look just a little bit sinister. What is it that triggers this Community Violation straight away? There has been no issue with any of my other videos.

Is Evan Gershkovich the Issue?

There are various videos on TikTok about World Press Freedom Day, so it is hard not to conclude that the issue is something to do with saying Gershkovich’s name, or, perhaps, the word Russia. This stirs up thoughts about TikTok’s connections to China and China’s relationship with Russia, but let’s not get too conspiratorial at this stage. Indeed, I remember at the start of the invasion there were live streams coming from Ukranians under attack going out on TikTok.

Whatever the cause, it really is not a good look. I was about to test what would happen to the second video if I posted it without the sentence about Gershkovich, but just as I was about to do so I noticed the original had been let back on the platform, so I left it.

I should add that I posted exactly the same video to YouTube shorts and there was no issue at all. (Please subscribe to The Addition YouTube channel as well!)

Getting Moderation Right

When it comes to moderation, TikTok says:

We are open about the fact that we may sometimes make moderation mistakes, which is why we continue to invest at scale in our Trust and Safety operation and provide an appeals process for cases where people believe no violation has occurred.

Social media companies are perfectly entitled to moderate their platforms. In fact, they should. If you want to use one of these platforms you have to play by their rules. But this power has to be used sparingly and appropriately. It cannot be used to stifle proper free speech or content about certain key issues going on in the world. This is a really complicated issue – look at the spread of, and attempts to moderate, crazy anti-vax conspiracies for proof of that – but videos advocating for a free press do not seem like something that should be taking up moderators’ time.

There are videos about Gershkovich on TikTok, but my experience certainly puts me off posting about it again. Who knows how these supposed violations will damage my channel’s performance on a platform so dependent on being on the right side of an algorithm? Maybe other, more prominent, people feel the same, and that has a chilling effect. 

TikTok is becoming an increasingly prominent news source. The company needs to take this responsibility seriously. Videos on difficult news subjects cannot be suppressed, even just for a few hours.

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