Conversations with Damian Ngiam

By Gracia Chua and Donovan Sim

Damian Ngiam is a product policy strategist, currently Global Policy & Process Manager at Bytedance TikTok. In this article, he discusses the nature of work as a specialist in legal policy operations for social media corporations. He also briefly discusses trends and developments in social media as they relate to legal issues.

Currently, I am working in the technology sector in Tik Tok and Bytedance as a policy and process manager. Working in the trust and safety department, I research and craft policies and build consensus with regards to safety issues like content that users post on our platform. This role also includes requests submitted by law enforcement agencies when a user in their jurisdiction has committed a crime and they require user data for further investigation. This is a high-level description of what I do. For my career, I started in Airbnb, also in the trust and safety department and doing operational works such as detecting fraudulent accounts on our platforms. After two years and nine months, I made the transition to Facebook, where I was in the law enforcement team, handling operational work where I liaise closely with law enforcement agencies across the globe when they submit data disclosure requests to Facebook. Then only last year, in March after spending about two years and nine months on Facebook, I made the transition to Tik Tok.

Yes, but I’m not legally trained, so I work very closely with my legal counterparts in-house.  At times, we work very closely with outside counsel to review the requests that we get. Typically, when law enforcement submits data disclosure requests, they cite proper legislation to grant the law enforcement officers the power to request user data. Hence, we work very closely with our legal counterparts to ensure that all these requests are legally sound.

Of course, my team is very diverse. At the moment, I work with team members all over the world, such as in Shanghai, the EMEA region and the US.

In my opinion, the most important thing is communication. When you have a diverse team, it may be difficult to get your message across. Having a structure, understanding everyone’s culture, getting to know each other, building that trust, and having a psychological safety net can create a safe space to communicate openly to breach that geographical distance. This is especially important in this day and age when we can’t travel and meet face to face. In my situation, this was more pertinent as I was on-boarded immediately right before the lockdown. I did not see my colleagues face to face in Singapore until about 11 months later. It has been challenging, especially with the great diversity of team members. Everyone has to play a part by being open and transparent and having that psychological safety net.

To be honest I wanted to sign on in the army, back when I was still studying. It did not work out, because the university I was keen on (RMIT/SIM) was not recognized by the Army. I did not want to go in after getting a degree that was not recognised by the organisation. However, I found my passion in keeping people and the community safe. That was the main reason why I wanted to join the Army because of its role in defence. I was quite fortunate to come across this Airbnb job description on the job site which was primarily focused on community defense. It resonated with me, so I decided to apply for it and the rest was history. My journey to this job stemmed from my interest in keeping people safe and to serve the community by ensuring that they could trust the platforms that they use.

To be frank, my studies at RMIT was a very short period for me, and the two years flew by quickly. In this business management course, there were not many experiences that I had. I knew that I could not go to a local university so I wanted to get a degree fast and just get into the real world. Thus, I do not have any particular applicable experience in school which I could apply to my work. People may ask me how to transition out from a business management course. In my case, I was fortunate because I didn’t have much experience with technology in school, but ended up being involved in the industry,

My typical workday starts with picking up a lot of things that spilled over from other timezones. My boss is actually from the European region so that is why I do a lot of late-night meetings. So, a typical day involves reading all the things that come in at night. The funny thing is that we do not use emails at all so everything is communicated via instant messaging. We use a product that was created by Bytedance called Lark. I start with lots of meetings with my team to just kick off our main priorities of the week, review our current policies and SOP to optimize those policies. Then I will take some time to see what is on top of my mind to research certain policies. For me right now, my main agenda is on the TikTok product, which is still a startup so a lot of policies are not crafted out. My focus is on law enforcement policies because that is my strength and my professional expertise is on the operational side of law enforcement. Currently, we need to craft out and implement those policies that are fair, lawful and transparent.

Content. During this pandemic, everyone is unable to travel so they increase social media usage. A challenge is the content users are posting, and how the trust and safety team faces challenges in mitigating risky content being posted such as the rise of disinformation and fake news, hate speech, harassment and bullying. It is fairly easy for a few comments to incite violence in the real world and bad things will happen.

So we try our best to come up with the best policies to ensure that users abide by them and that we can also enforce them.

I would say for soft skills, students can better prepare themselves by understanding the product very well. There also needs to be a passion to serve the community and ensure they are kept safe before diving into trust and security. Many times in my work, I see a lot of graphic content that may be hard to watch so viewers may develop PTSD over time. Hence, it is important to have a sense of mission and passion to serve the community. In terms of technical skills, I do not see much need unless you are going towards the engineering side of things but for the policy side, no.

I believe a lot of users do not really understand how trust and safety work is being done on the social media front. They think that when their content gets removed, their comments get removed, or their accounts get banned, these are all done by machines. However, they do not realise that content is actually reviewed by people. Even law enforcement agencies may believe that their requests are handled by automations. People are often surprised that there are humans behind all these processes who uphold the safety of these platforms.

One key consideration is that any policies crafted should be fair, transparent, and legally appropriate. I work very closely with my legal counterparts to ensure that any policies that we wish to implement are legally sound.

We are pioneering a safety advisory council comprising stakeholders and experts from across the globe. They focus on issues such as minor safety, suicide and self harm, and so on. When we bring these experts together, we hear from their advice on how to make our policies more robust.

I think I will still be in the trust and safety department. My passion lies with keeping the community safe. I will look into evolving safety-related issues and assess how I can apply my experiences to ensure the product is trusted and the community is kept safe.

I believe I could have added more value to my team if I could provide more data analysis by learning computer science. Thus, if I could have learnt more computer science during my school days, I would have.