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Former Chinese government official ran TikTok’s content policy as app went global

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A former Chinese government official in his late twenties was in charge of deciding what content should be allowed on TikTok as the short-video app became a smash hit around the world, according to two people close to the company.

Cai Zheng, who worked in China’s embassy in Tehran for four years according to a now deleted LinkedIn profile, ran ByteDance’s global content policy team in Beijing until early this year, when the company accelerated a move to let its biggest markets make their own decisions about what videos should be removed. 

The revelation that Mr Cai was at the heart of TikTok’s policymaking team raises questions about repeated denials from ByteDance, the app’s Beijing-based owner, that the Chinese government has any influence over TikTok’s operations. 

TikTok has been painted as a security threat to the US by Donald Trump and the app is trying to restructure its ownership and operations in partnership with Oracle and Walmart to avoid a total ban. It has been banned in India, previously its largest market by number of users.

Mr Cai joined ByteDance in 2018, at a time when the company was under intense scrutiny by Beijing for the videos it was running on TikTok’s Chinese sister app, Douyin, among other issues. The pressure forced chief executive Zhang Yiming to issue an apology and to tack closer to the government line. 

The former diplomat sat within ByteDance’s global trust and safety team in Beijing and wrote guidelines for what videos were acceptable on TikTok and other international apps including Helo and Vigo Video.

According to the people close to the company, Mr Cai was far from being a Communist Party ideologue, but his background and training may have influenced how he, and a team of young mostly Chinese policy analysts, implemented a strategy to keep controversial content off the short-video app.

During his stint, TikTok was accused of suppressing videos that upset Beijing’s sensitivities, including one by a teenage American girl which sought to raise awareness of the mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. TikTok has denied suppressing politically sensitive videos and said the video was removed in error. 

Last September, documents leaked to the Guardian newspaper, and confirmed as authentic by the people close to the company, suggested that TikTok banned videos about Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the Falun Gong movement.

TikTok said these policies were out of date and the documents were labelled as historical, although one person said content moderators still had access to them at the time of the leak.

“Cai Zheng was not involved in developing the policies [ . . .] as these policies predated him,” said a TikTok spokesperson. “He worked with our growing regional and local teams on localisation of our early content policies.”

Mr Cai could not be reached for comment.

TikTok has now devolved responsibility for forming content policy and moderating videos to Los Angeles, as well as three hubs in Dublin, Singapore and Silicon Valley. The heads of these hubs report to a global head of trust and safety in Beijing, a Chinese woman known inside ByteDance by the pseudonym Yuyi F, with few people at the company aware of her real name, the people said. 

Mr Cai transferred from the content policy role in early January, said two people, and his role has not since been filled.

ByteDance said: “It was not a consideration in hiring Zheng that his previous role was in the public sector, and there were no conversations with the government in the hiring process. As TikTok continued to build out its global safety teams in regional hubs, Zheng decided to move to ByteDance’s gaming team.”

Even though content policy and moderation is now run locally, people close to the situation said engineers building features such as hashtags, or writing the algorithms that select which videos are shown to users are largely based in Beijing and Shanghai, though there are now increasing numbers on the US West Coast, Singapore and Dublin. 

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One of the people noted that US TikTok employees working on moderating political content around the US election would need to ask colleagues in China to help them build products to monitor such videos. 

TikTok said it has not seen widespread evidence of people using the platform to post malicious videos around the US presidential election.

“We have and continue to take down inauthentic accounts for suspicious behaviour such as spam, but relatively few of these inauthentic account removals have a direct tie to any specific topic, including the election. The lead for the TikTok algorithm is based in Mountain View,” said a spokesperson. 

The spokesperson added that ByteDance now has “hundreds of engineers” in Silicon Valley to scale up the platform, that TikTok’s chief security officer is based in the US, and that since earlier this year, all trust and safety teams, including Yuyi, now report to “global leadership based in the US”. 

Under pressure, ByteDance has pushed to move control of content policy and moderation out of China

August 2018

ByteDance merges TikTok with Musical.ly

august 2018

Cai Zheng joins ByteDance from China’s foreign ministry, quickly becomes the head of TikTok content policy.

SUMMER 2019

TikTok begins to devolve full control of content policy for US market with a team being built in Los Angeles and in September hires first US content policy analyst who does not report to Mr Cai.

September 2019

Damaging leak to the Guardian leads company to double down on localisation strategy for content policy and content moderation in all regions.

November 2019 — January 2020

TikTok hires trust and safety heads for regional hubs in Silicon Valley, Dublin and Singapore who report to Yuyi F, head of global trust and safety in Beijing.

January 2020

Cai Zheng transfers out of his role as head of global content policy.

March 2020

TikTok names professors and experts who will form a US-focused content advisory council to advise the company on content moderation.

july 2020

TikTok has 689m global active users and about 90m monthly active users in the US.



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Brazil virus variant found to evade natural immunity

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The P.1 Covid-19 variant that originated in Brazil and has spread to more than 25 countries is around twice as transmissible as some other strains and is more likely to evade the natural immunity people usually develop from prior infection, according to a new international study.

The research, conducted by a UK-Brazilian team of researchers from institutions including Oxford university, Imperial College London, the University of São Paulo, found that the P.1 variant was between 1.4 and 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants circulating in Brazil. 

It was also “able to evade 25-61 per cent of protective immunity elicited by previous infection” with any earlier variant, the researchers found, in a sign that current vaccines could also be less effective against it.

International concern about the P.1 variant has escalated recently, with more than 25 countries detecting the variant, including Belgium, Sweden and the UK, which has identified six cases.

The scientists are expected to release a paper describing the research on Tuesday. Dr Nuno Faria, the lead author, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The study has not yet been peer reviewed.

The researchers have dated the emergence of the P.1 variant to November 6, 2020, around one month before cases began to surge for a second time in the Brazilian city of Manaus. They found that the proportion of cases classified as P.1 in Manaus increased from zero to 87 per cent in the space of 7 weeks. 

The paper concluded: “Our results further show that natural immunity waning alone is unlikely to explain the observed dynamics in Manaus, with support for P.1 possessing altered epidemiological characteristics.”

“Studies to evaluate real-world vaccine efficacy in response to P.1 are urgently needed,” it added.

The researchers also found that infections were 10 to 80 per cent more likely to result in death in Manaus after the emergence of P.1. However, the authors cautioned that it was not possible to determine whether this meant the variant was more lethal or whether it was a result of increased strain on the city’s healthcare system, or a combination of both. 

The P.1 variant has over 17 mutations, which alter its genetic sequence from the virus originally identified in Wuhan, including 3 key changes to the spike protein that it uses to enter human cells.

Researchers in Brazil have been using genetic sequencing technology developed by Oxford Nanopore in the UK to identify and track the variant. The technology was first used in Brazil during the Zika outbreak in 2015.

Dr Leila Luheshi, director of applied and clinical markets at Oxford Nanopore, told the Financial Times that while the B.1.1.7 variant in the UK has similar properties of high transmissibility to P.1 — it is thought to be around 1.5 times as transmissible as variants that preceded it — there was no evidence to date that it evaded past natural immunity in the same way. Studies so far have also shown that current vaccines retain their efficacy against B.1.1.7.

Luheshi said that the concern with P.1 is that “because it has these mutations around the spike . . . the hypothesis is that the vaccine will be less effective.” But she added that there is not yet definitive evidence to support this theory. 



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Coronavirus latest: Production glitches to delay Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution

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Coronavirus latest: Production glitches to delay Johnson & Johnson vaccine distribution



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Norsk Hydro blamed for birth defects in Amazon forest pollution case

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Maria do Socorro explains in graphic detail the spate of ailments affecting newborns in her remote community in the Amazon: her grandson died after being born with his intestines outside his body, while others were missing organs or had undeveloped bones.

For the 56-year-old community leader, there is little doubt about the cause of these illnesses. She said the rainforest town had for years suffered from toxic waste pollution from the local operations of Norwegian aluminium producer Norsk Hydro.

Long a simmering environmental scandal in Brazil, the allegations were brought on to the international stage this month when Socorro’s community sued the Norwegian giant in a Dutch court, seeking damages for claims that “the incorrect disposal of toxic waste” from operations in the area had caused a variety of health ailments, polluted the rainforest and destroyed economic opportunities.

“We cannot have future generations because the children are born and then die. Whole families are contaminated,” said Socorro from the Barcarena township in the northern state of Pará.

The case — filed just days before the UK’s top court ruled that Royal Dutch Shell could face legal action in London brought by thousands of Nigerian villagers over alleged pollution — is the latest international trial pitting large, resource-hungry companies against impoverished rural communities.

It also comes amid mounting pressure on companies to abide by strict environmental standards, a push being spearheaded visibly by Scandinavian investors.

One of the allegations in the lawsuit is that the pollution has caused birth defects © Alessandro Falco/Bloomberg

“If business can be global, why can’t justice? These companies have businesses everywhere, but then when they do something wrong they want to smother the possibility of people getting compensation,” said Pedro Martins, partner at law firm PGMBM, which is representing 40,000 alleged victims bringing the suit against Norsk Hydro.

“International corporations have different standards for how they do business in the northern and southern hemispheres as if life in the southern hemisphere does not have the same value.”

Through local entities, Norsk Hydro runs three facilities — a bauxite mine, a refinery and a smelter — in Pará, a vast Amazonian state that is a flashpoint for illegal deforestation, gold mining and land-grabbing.

The company said it would respond to the request before the court in the Netherlands, where its subsidiaries controlling the local entities at issue are headquartered. It denied that in 2018 pollutants from its facilities spilled over during heavy rains and polluted nearby rivers and earth. The company declined to comment further.

A source close to the company said, however, that it did “not see the [health] effects that have been claimed. The actual impact is hard to see and there aren’t any studies showing that.”

Map of Brazil

A combination of poor sanitary conditions and the tropical climate could be behind many of the health issues, he added: “There are a lot of feelings and not so many things relating to actual facts.”

Locals say bauxite, lead and aluminium pollution have turned the region’s rivers red. A study from the Evandro Chagas Institute, a Brazilian public health body, found in 2018 that the region’s waters were so polluted with industrial waste from the Norsk Hydro facilities that they “cannot be used for recreation, fishing, or human consumption”.

Like many Amazonian communities, much of the Barcarena township depends heavily on fishing and farming for survival, work that they now say is impossible.

“I invite these Norwegians to come and bathe in our waters. I challenge them. They have good water there in Norway. Our wealth just goes there,” said Socorro, who heads Cainquiama, a group representing mainly indigenous people and quilombolas — the descendants of runaway slaves.

Nearly all of the claimants in the suit have complained about chronic pain, hair loss and skin conditions. The suit also contains claims in relation to birth defects, such as those that have affected Socorro’s grandson, who was born with gastroschisis — a hole in the abdominal wall.

A pipe belonging to alumina refinery Alnorte, which is owned by Norsk Hydro, in Barcarena © Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

“Studies around the world have shown the effects [of toxic metals] on pregnant women, foetuses and children at birth,” said Marcelo de Oliveira Lima, a public health researcher at the Chagas institute. “But our studies so far did not go deep enough to show the [connection]. Other studies are still being done.”

The case is a sensitive one for Norwegian investors and the government, which owns a 34 per cent stake in Norsk Hydro. Oslo has long attempted to hold Brasília to account for the environmental destruction of the Amazon, even publishing its own data on deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest.

“There seem to be quite some dispute about the facts in this case and in particular about the actual harm of the spill to local environment and whether the company is somehow to blame by neglecting important safety measures,” said Jeanett Bergan, head of responsible investments at the KLP pension fund, Norway’s largest pension provider.

“We know Norsk Hydro as a responsible corporate actor when doing businesses abroad. I do not think [this case] will damage the credibility of Norwegian actors.”

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Martins, the lawyer leading the group action, said they brought the case in the Netherlands because of the inertia of the Brazilian court system. He believes the case can reach a verdict in 18 or 24 months.

Brazil is no stranger to environmental disasters. This month, miner Vale agreed to a $7bn settlement with authorities over a dam breach in 2019 in the Brumadinho township that killed hundreds of people and polluted vast tracts of lands with industrial sludge.

BHP was sued in a British court over a dam failure in Brazil’s Mariana township in 2015 that left 19 dead. The case was thrown out because parallel proceedings were taking place in Brazil.

“The Hydro case draws attention for having caused significant environmental damage,” said Luiz Eduardo Rielli, director of sustainability consultancy Novi. “After three years, what I care most about is: What lessons have been learned? How can we ensure that new damages do not occur?”

Additional reporting by Richard Milne in Oslo and Carolina Pulice in São Paulo



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