The video starts with a teenager offering eyelash curling advice to her followers. But this is no ordinary beauty tip.
Just seconds into Feroza Aziz’s seemingly straightforward tutorial, the 17-year-old Afghan American woman tells the viewer to put down the lash curler and seamlessly transitions from eyelash curling to politics. “Use the phone that you’re using right now to search up what’s happening in China,” she states matter of factly.
She spends the rest of the 40-second clip — which has racked up more than 1.5 million views on the wildly popular short video app TikTok — criticizing the Chinese government and its detention centers, which hold mostly Muslim Uyghurs in the country’s far western region of Xinjiang.
Beijing has long insisted that the camps are voluntary “vocational training centers.” However many Western nations, including the United States, have condemned them as mass detention centers designed to eradicate Uyghur culture and Islamic practices.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday there was an “overwhelming and growing body of evidence that the Chinese Communist Party is committing human rights violations and abuses against individuals in mass detention.” He called for the immediate release of all those “arbitrarily detained” and for Beijing to end the “draconian policies that have terrorized its citizens in Xinjiang.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang accused the United States of attempting to meddle in its affairs, and said there were no “ethnic, religious, human rights” issues in the region. “The measures that the Xinjiang government takes are about counter-terrorism and de-radicalization,” Geng said at a briefing on Wednesday.
In her video, Aziz rattles off a list of allegations — “how they’re getting concentration camps, throwing innocent Muslims in there, separating their families from each other” — before launching into even more serious claims of abuse. Her video has even taken on a life outside of TikTok, attracting millions of views on other social platforms like Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR).
The episode has also evolved into a broader dispute between Aziz and TikTok, which she has accused of censoring her views.
Earlier this week, Aziz told CNN Business that she was unable to access her account, and sent a reporter a screenshot of a TikTok login screen that said the account was “temporarily suspended” — a sign she believed showed she was being discriminated against by the company, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance.
A TikTok spokesman on Wednesday denied that the company banned Aziz’s video or her account, and pointed out that the video was still available on the app. CNN Business was able to find the video — and her account — on TikTok that day.
“TikTok does not moderate content due to political sensitivities,” the company said in a statement.
During US hours late Wednesday, though, TikTok acknowledged that Aziz had been effectively locked out of being able to access her account because of an earlier, unrelated ban. That ban prevented her from using an older account, and also affected a device Aziz used to access both her old and new accounts.
TikTok said it is overriding the device ban.
The company also apologized to Aziz for briefly removing the viral Xinjiang video from the service. The clip was offline for nearly an hour Wednesday morning in the United States because of what TikTok said was a “human moderation error.”
Aziz confirmed late Wednesday that she could again access her account, though still said she was suspicious of TikTok’s explanation.
“I believe TikTok took down the video because of its spread of awareness for Uyghurs in China, but realized that by doing this, then it would prove that they are trying to hide the truth,” she told CNN Business.
US censorship concerns
TikTok has exploded in popularity and become one of the few Chinese-owned social media apps to gain traction in Western countries. But its connection to China has prompted some US lawmakers to voice concerns about whether TikTok censors content, and about whether the security of user data may be compromised.
US Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton want the US intelligence community to assess the national security risks of TikTok and other Chinese-owned platforms, saying in a statement on October 24 that such apps could be used to spy on US citizens or become targets of foreign influence campaigns.
TikTok has denied such allegations, saying last month that it has “never been asked by the Chinese government to remove any content and we would not do so if asked.”
Aziz’s first ban from the service was completely unrelated to Xinjiang. The company said Wednesday that another account owned by Aziz had been banned because she “posted a video of Osama bin Laden, which is a violation of TikTok’s ban on content that includes imagery related to terrorist organizations.”
When Aziz first spoke with CNN Business on Wednesday, she described that video as a joke that riffed on the discrimination she experienced as a young Muslim woman growing up in a white US community. That video, which CNN Business has seen and which Aziz confirmed as hers, includes a montage of men she says she likes now, one of whom is the infamous terrorist leader.
“I’ve been told to leave the country … to go marry a terrorist, and people telling me that I was ‘Bin Laden,’” Aziz said. She said she believed that account was banned because of other videos she posted that accused the news media of ignoring international crimes against Muslims.
In its latest statement, TikTok said it recognized that that video “may have been intended as satire.” But it added that its policies “on this front are currently strict.”
Asked about that response, Aziz told CNN Business that TikTok’s response still did not satisfy her because they did not address her explanation in full.
“That video should not have been the reason for my account to be suspended,” she said. “TikTok is trying to cover up this whole mess.”
Aziz continues to use her social platforms to spread her message, and told CNN Business earlier this week that she was “shocked” her videos have gained so much attention.
“I will only speak louder about this issue. I will always speak louder.”