Popular video sharing app TikTok has been accused of limiting the reach of videos posted by overweight and disabled users to protect them from bullying.
The measures were introduced to prevent TikTok users who were judged to be “fat and self-confident”, or had disabilities such as Down Syndrome and autism from being attacked, according to German blog Netzpolitik, which cited leaked documents and a source within the company.
It is alleged to have limited particular users’ posts to the country in which they were uploaded, while preventing videos reaching other users’ feeds after a certain number of views had been tallied up.
The restriction of posts is believed to be part of an internal policy called “imagery depicting a subject highly vulnerable to cyberbullying”. The company claimed the policy was a temporary one which has been removed, but a TikTok source told the website that moderators had been instructed to follow the rules as recently as September.
TikTok, owned by Chinese tech giant Bytedance, has seen soaring popularity in the west over the past year as users have found internet fame with viral videos of dance routines and pranks.
But by hiding posts and restricting their reach, including some from the LGBTQ community, TikTok is alleged to have discriminated against users.
It’s not the first time TikTok has come under fire over censorship, after a recently posted video highlighting human rights abuses in Xinjiang, China, where ethnic minority Uighurs have been subjected to mass surveillance, was temporarily removed.
TikTok later admitted that the video posted by 17-year-old Feroza Aziz, which had been viewed millions of times, was removed after a “human moderation error”. The company has previously denied that its moderation policy is influenced by the Chinese government.
It comes as the company faces a lawsuit in the US alleging that it sent the personal data of a student to China. Misty Hong has alleged that TikTok gathered and transferred information about her without her consent.
In a statement, a TikTok spokesperson said: "Early on, in response to an increase in bullying on the app, we implemented a blunt and temporary policy. This was never designed to be a long-term solution, and while the intention was good, it became clear that the approach was wrong.
"We want TikTok to be a space where everyone can safely and freely express themselves, and we have long since changed the policy in favour of more nuanced anti-bullying policies."