TikTok has quietly restricted one of its few tools to help measure the popularity of trends on the video app, after the tool’s results were used by researchers and lawmakers to scrutinize content on the site related to geopolitics and the Israel-Hamas war.
The tool, called the Creative Center, is meant to help advertisers track popular hashtags on the site. The Creative Center is available to anyone and can produce figures about the number of videos tied to a certain hashtag and information about the audience that saw those videos.
The company’s critics had harnessed the tool to argue that TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, fails to adequately moderate content on the app and that Beijing influences the posts that appear on it. TikTok itself has cited hashtag data to push back against claims of pro-Palestinian bias.
But as of last week, there was no longer a “search” button on the tool and links for hashtags related to the war and U.S. politics stopped working. TikTok said the tool was now focused on sharing data on the top 100 hashtags within different industries, such as pets or travel.
“Unfortunately, some individuals and organizations have misused the Center’s search function to draw inaccurate conclusions, so we are changing some of the features to ensure it is used for its intended purpose,” said Alex Haurek, a company spokesman. TikTok said the tool was created in 2020.
The change illuminates the pressure that TikTok has come under since the start of the war. Lawmakers and researchers have scrutinized the app’s influence on young Americans and fears about how Beijing could potentially influence content on TikTok. There have been efforts in Washington to ban the app — an outcome that many consider unlikely — or force a sale of TikTok to an American company.
The Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University, which tracks misinformation and extremism online, flagged the changes last week. The group used it for a report last month that said topics Beijing suppresses inside its borders, like the Uyghur population and Hong Kong protests, were unusually underrepresented on TikTok compared with Instagram.
The researchers said they could no longer find data about the hashtags they studied, including current events like #BLM, #Trump2024 and #Biden.
“Anything that’s politically sensitive or could be politically sensitive or explosive is gone, and anything that is M&M’s or pop culture, no problem,” said Joel Finkelstein, a founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute. “It’s really uncanny to me they didn’t announce it or say something about it.”
TikTok, which has repeatedly said the Chinese government has no influence over the app, has said the report used “a flawed methodology to reach a predetermined, false conclusion.” Some outside experts also warned against drawing too firm of a conclusion from hashtag data.
But experts also said the research raised interesting questions, and at least some lawmakers, including Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, praised the report as part of a broader effort to regulate TikTok.
Other social networks, such as X and Facebook, also offer little data about how people use the services, or how the algorithms that surface posts work. TikTok, like some of the other social networks, has an application process for researchers who want to independently study the platform.
Joshua Tucker, a co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University, said the United States needed regulation requiring social media platforms to share data with external researchers.
“Leaving decisions about transparency up to the platforms means that, by definition, we’re going to get policies that the platforms feel are in their interests at that particular moment,” Mr. Tucker said. “Sometimes those policies might dovetail nicely with the interests of societies, journalists and outside researchers, and sometimes they won’t.”