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Teen's censored TikTok video raises alarms about the China-backed platform

Was it repressive Chinese censors or an offensively horny Osama bin Laden reference that killed the TikTok star? Or, perhaps, both? If this sounds like the most confusing round of Clue ever, well, it is. The story of Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old Muslim girl from New Jersey whose account on the shortform video platform was recently deleted, defies easy answers — while raising several fascinating questions.

Aziz’s brush with the ban-hammer began when she uploaded a snarky, passionate video about the Chinese government’s repressive crackdown against the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, where long-reported concentration camps were recently confirmed by leaked documents. The clip was cheekily presented as a makeup tutorial.

"So, the first thing you need to do is grab your lash curler, curl your lashes obviously," Aziz says, staring into the camera. "Then, you're gonna put them down and use the phone you're using right now to search what's happening in China, how they're getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there. ... This is another Holocaust, yet no one is talking about it."

Not long after, her account was deleted.

TikTok has found itself in increasingly hot water over the past few months. After rising to prominence as a charming oasis free from the baggage and headaches of Facebook and Twitter, the platform has come under increasing scrutiny from lawmakers and activists over its ties to China’s authoritarian government. TikTok is owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance, which, like all major companies in the country, has to groove to the Communist Party’s tune.

TikTok has 500 million users, about 41% of whom are between 16 and 24. It’s a powerful wedge into youth psychology and potential engine for global activism. It’s also stoked fears of Chinese President Xi Jinping using the app in illicit ways, similar to how China has weaponized less youth-culture-focused tech companies like Huawei. Earlier this month, the Senate announced a bipartisan cybersecurity investigation into TikTok. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the probe a “validation of our concern that apps like TikTok … may pose serious risks to millions of Americans and deserve greater scrutiny.”

Beyond its potential as a cyberweapon, many are concerned about what the app might not be used for: posting anything critical of China’s territorial sovereignty. A Guardian investigation in September revealed internal TikTok guidelines for silencing “highly controversial topics, such as separatism, religion sects conflicts, conflicts between ethnic groups, for instance exaggerating the Islamic sects conflicts, inciting the independence of Northern Ireland, Republic of Chechnya, Tibet, and Taiwan and exaggerating the ethnic conflict between black and white.”

Obviously, Xinjiang — where the Chinese government is openly beta-testing cutting-edge tools for dynamic social control — comes to mind.

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"TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities," a spokesman for the platform told BBC News, after being asked about the Aziz deletion. Instead, the app claimed that Aziz’s account was deleted because she posted, um, an erotic meme about Osama bin Laden.

In the clip, Aziz portrays a slew of her white male popstar crushes like Justin Bieber. At the end, the video switches to show her crushing on Muslim stars like Zayn Malik, and, in a final twist, bin Laden.

Sure, it’s an eyebrow-raiser. But Aziz isn’t Andrew Dice Clay, either. TikTok nuking an inconvenient teen’s account over a joke in the same edginess bracket as any given South Park episode seems a bit … convenient.

Ultimately, confirmation of the company’s true rationale will likely remain out of reach, unless a brave internal whistleblower steps forward. But in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Aziz expressed healthy skepticism about TikTok’s claims. “I still find it suspicious that TikTok took down my video right when my posts on China’s concentration camps were made,” she said. “Doesn’t sound right to me.”