Many people have accused Gen Z of being self-obsessed and politically disengaged, even as they prove, time and again, that this is far from the case. (Hence, the now-ubiquitous “OK boomer” meme.) The most recent example is Feroza Aziz, a 17-year-old girl from the U.S. who — in what she says was an effort to evade Chinese censors — concealed a message protesting the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims in China in a TikTok makeup tutorial.
In the initial TikTok, Aziz uses a lash curler for a few seconds before urging people to Google the imprisonment of Uyghur Muslims — a predominantly Muslim minority group — in concentration camps. Aziz alleges that Uyghurs imprisoned in these camps have been kidnapped, raped and beaten, as well as forced to eat pork and drink alcohol in violation of their faith. “People who go into these concentration camps don’t come out alive. This is another Holocaust, and yet nobody is talking about it. Please be aware, and please spread awareness,” she says in the clip before ending with another reference to her lash curler.
Aziz followed up with two additional TikToks pointing to resources for those hoping to help the Uyghurs and urging teens to spread awareness: “Generations before us don’t have the same power we have now, and that’s technology,” she says, adding, “Our voices can do so much.”
The Uyghurs are an ethnic group that primarily lives in the Xinjiang region of western China. Human rights groups have long alleged that the Chinese government has been placing Uyghurs in “reeducation camps” under horrific conditions, and former detainees have testified that they have witnessed gang rape and forced sterilization at the camps. In response to these claims, the Chinese government has maintained that the camps are intended to combat domestic terrorism and extremism, and have opened up the camps to select journalists, although many have claimed that such visits are carefully staged to conceal any evidence of human rights abuses.
GUYS NO JOKE THIS TUTORIAL HELPED ME SO MUCH PLEASE WATCH IT pic.twitter.com/BuITSebOu6
— saltys backup (@soIardan) November 24, 2019
Aziz’s TikToks have since gone massively viral, with the first one garnering more than 1.4 million views. In a phone interview with Rolling Stone, Aziz, 17, says that she had previously posted about the Uyghurs on social media, “But no one wants to listen. People don’t really care,” she says. When she started using TikTok primarily to create humorous content targeted at other Muslim-Americans, she decided to use the app as a platform to speak out about the human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
She decided to disguise the TikToks as makeup tutorials for two reasons: “People don’t care at all that this is happening. All they care about is what the trend is, the new fashion trend, who’s dating who, what new YouTuber there is,” she says. “[So], I thought, ‘Why don’t I speak about what they want?’ A lot of people want bigger lashes, let me reel them in. Let me pretend that this is a lash video they can watch and then I’ll hit them with what really matters, what they should really be caring about,” she says.
The other, more salient reason was based on reports that TikTok — which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance — has been accused of censoring content that is unfavorable to the Chinese government, such as the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Aziz says that she had previously posted a TikTok skewering the media for failing to cover reports of Muslims being killed in the Middle East and China, only to have that content removed by TikTok without explanation.
“I was like, ‘OK, let me make sure this doesn’t get taken down. Let me pretend it’s a makeup tutorial. And it really helped,” she says.
Until, she says, it didn’t: On Monday morning, she says she received a temporary suspension notice from TikTok preventing her from posting to her account, due to “multiple violations,” she says. The notice did not specify what the violations were, though her feed remains live. She says she cannot access her account, and she believes the suspension was due to her TikToks about the Uyghurs. “I think it’s extremely fishy that right when I post those videos about China, my account gets suspended,” she says.
— feroza.x (@x_feroza) November 25, 2019
When reached for comment by Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for TikTok denied that it had suspended Aziz based on her viral TikToks about Uyghur Muslims, saying that one of her previous accounts had been banned 10 days ago due to a TikTok she had uploaded featuring a poster of Osama bin Laden. The spokesperson said that the image of bin Laden triggered TikTok’s system as identifying it as terrorist-related content, leading to Aziz’s device being banned from posting on TikTok.
The spokesperson said that Aziz received the suspension notice shortly after posting her TikToks about Uyghur Muslims because even though she had posted them on a new account, it was on the device that had been banned. The spokesperson also said it did not remove the previous TikTok about Uyghur Muslims prior to Aziz’s old account being removed.
While the spokesperson declined to describe the content of the TikTok that led to it being flagged for content that promoted terrorism, Aziz said it was a “dark humorous joke” presenting Osama bin Laden as a sort of teenage crush, poking fun at the idea that all Muslim-Americans support terrorists.
“As a Muslim-American growing up in a country that ridicules me … I’ve been told, ‘Why don’t you go marry a terrorist, you’re a terrorist yourself,” she says. “So I thought OK, I’ll make a TikTok of me saying a terrorist is cute. Obviously I’m joking about that … but it’s taken down, it’s taken out of context, and I didn’t mean for it to be taken out of context at all like that.”
She also pointed out that she has seen numerous POV TikToks depicting much more graphic content, “But me posting a video of me trying to cope with the racist remarks I faced every day, that gets taken down,” she says.
When asked whether TikTok generally censors content that is critical of the Chinese government, the spokesperson denied this, saying in a statement that the app “does not remove content based on sensitivities related to China.” Yet TikTok has recently come under fire from the U.S. government, which has deemed it a potential security risk. It is currently under review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which assesses corporate acquisitions by foreign companies.
After Aziz’s makeup tutorial/protest video went viral this week, she has seemingly sparked a trend of TikTok users couching potentially inflammatory political statements in seemingly innocuous contexts. She has used her desktop to see TikToks of users promising tutorials for how to spin a basketball only to speak out about the oppression of the Uyghurs, as well as a tutorial for how to wear a hijab that doubled as a discussion of the human rights violations in Palestine. And now that she’s seen the extent of her impact, she’s reconsidering whether to use TikTok again, even after her suspension is up.
“I honestly think if I try with TikTok even more then they will just try to silence me, so why not just go to Instagram and spread awareness there?,” she says. “[They] can’t do anything to me on other social medias. I’m not going to be silenced by them.”