TikTok overhauls its community guidelines, adds new policies on AI and climate misinformation

TikTok is announcing updates to its community guidelines that are designed to make the app a safer and more secure environment for users. The social media platform is updating its community guidelines to make them easier to understand, and has added new policies on AI and climate misinformation. The company has also added more detail about its existing policies regarding civil and election integrity, and age restrictions.

The updated guidelines, which will go into effect on April 21, come as TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew is slated to appear before congress on March 23 amid growing security concerns.

As part of the updated guidelines, synthetic or manipulated media that shows realistic scenes must be clearly disclosed. The company says this can be done through the use of a sticker or caption, such as “synthetic,” “fake,” “not real” or “altered.” TikTok notes that although it welcomes the creativity that AI unlocks, the technology can make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, which can lead to risks.

“We do not allow synthetic media that contains the likeness of any real private figure,” the new guidelines read. “While we provide more latitude for public figures, we do not want them to be the subject of abuse, or for people to be misled by political or financial issues. We do not allow synthetic media of public figures if the content is used for endorsements or violates any other policy. This includes prohibitions on hate speech, sexual exploitation and serious forms of harassment.”

TikTok defines synthetic media as content created or modified by AI technology that includes “highly realistic” digitally-created content of real people, such as a video of a real person speaking words that have been modified or changed. The company defines a public figure as someone who is 18 years of age or older with a significant public role, such as a government official, politician, business leader or celebrity.

Under this policy, TikTok won’t allow synthetic media showing realistic scenes that aren’t prominently disclosed or labeled in the video. The app also won’t allow material that has been edited or combined in a way that could mislead a person about real-world events.

Synthetic media showing a public figure in certain contexts, including educational content, will be allowed. For example, the app will allow videos showing a celebrity doing a TikTok dance or a historical figure featured in a history lesson.

The new guidelines for AI go beyond TikTok’s current policy on the technology, which simply states that it does not allow synthetic or manipulated media that misleads users by distorting the truth of events and causes significant harm to the subject of the video, other persons or society.

The updated policies around AI come as the technology has been trending due to the popularity of products like DALL-E 2 and ChatGPT. Misinformation researchers and experts have raised alarms about AI and the danger that the technology could bring, so it’s no surprise that TikTok is updating its policies to add specific guidelines regarding AI.

“The world is changing,” said Julie de Bailliencourt, TikTok’s global head of product policy, during a briefing with reporters. “Our community is changing. We see new trends coming and going, and we think we need to regularly update these guidelines to meet the expectation of people who come on our service.”

TikTok has also added a new section under its misinformation policy to address climate misinformation. The updated guidelines note that TikTok does not allow climate change misinformation that “undermines well-established scientific consensus,” such as denying the existence of climate change or the factors that contribute to it. The app, however, does allow discussions about climate change, such as the benefits or disadvantages of particular policies or technologies or personal views related to specific weather events, as long as it does not undermine scientific consensus.

The new policy comes as a report from last year revealed that TikTok search results were flooded with misinformation about climate change. The report found that if a user was searching for “climate change,” the app offered results related to climate science denial, for instance.

Adding transparency to existing policies

“What you’ll first notice when you open the new version of the community guidelines is that they look quite a bit different,” said Justin Erlich, TikTok’s global head of issue policy and partnerships, during the press briefing. “That’s because we’ve completely overhauled how we organize our rules into different topic areas with clear headings. In the new format, we have a brief section of each rule where we explain what we allow and don’t allow, along with the rationale.”

The company has added more detail about how it protects civil and election integrity, as well as its approach to government, politician and political party accounts.

TikTok’s current community guidelines simply state that it does not allow content that misleads community members about elections or other civic processes. The new guidelines go into more detail, noting that TikTok does not allow misinformation about civic and electoral processes, including misinformation about how to vote, registering to vote, eligibility requirements of candidates, the processes to count ballots and certify elections, and the final outcome of an election. Unverified claims about the outcome of an election that is still unfolding and may be false or misleading won’t be featured in the app’s For You feed.

The guidelines outline that although TikTok treats content from government and politician accounts the same as any other account, it approaches content-level enforcement for these accounts differently. For example, these public interest accounts will be banned for any single severe content violation, such as threatening violence. For repeated content violations that are less severe, they will be temporarily ineligible to appear in the For You feed. In some instances, they may be temporarily restricted from posting new content.

TikTok has also added a new section that explains its age restrictions for young users. The app limits overtly mature content so it is only viewed by adults 18 years of age and older, and the guidelines now further explain what content is limited.

Content that is age restricted includes significant body exposure by adults, seductive performances by adults, sexualized posing by adults, allusions to sexual activity by adults, blood of humans and animals, consumption of excessive amounts of alcohol and tobacco by adults, activities that are like to lead to physical harm, and cosmetic surgery that does not include risk warnings.

The new section comes as TikTok introduced a “Content Levels” system last year that was designed to prevent content with overtly mature themes from reaching users aged 13 to 17.

The guidelines explain that content created by an account that belongs to a user who is under 16 years of age won’t be eligible to appear in the app’s For You feed. Moderate body exposure of young people, along with intimate kissing or sexualized posing by young people, will be ineligible to appear in the For You feed. The policy means that this content is still available and viewable on the app if you follow the user or if you go directly to their profile.

TikTok has also added a new section under its scam policies to note that it does not allow the use of multiple accounts to intentionally bypass its rules. The policy against circumvention does not allow attempts to avoid an account ban by spreading content violations across multiple accounts. The app also doesn’t allow the use of alternative accounts to continue the violating behavior that previously resulted in a ban on a different account.

The company says it will provide additional training to its moderators over the next few months to help enforce these updated rules effectively as they start to roll out.

The updated community guidelines come as the Biden administration continues its efforts to ban the app in the U.S. The Biden administration has supported a bipartisan bill that could ban the app in the country and has recently threatened a ban if the company doesn’t split with its Chinese ownership.