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Opinion

TikTok risks becoming new front in China's information war

Beijing wants social media to tell stories which support its narrative

Censorship is already happening.   © Imaginechina/AP

TikTok is the world's fastest growing social media network, and if you are not under 25 there is a good chance you have never heard of it. The platform -- which uses algorithms to automatically curate an endless feed of entertaining, user-generated short videos -- is a smash hit with teenagers around the world, including in the U.S., India and to a lesser extent Japan.

But because of its parent company's relationship with the Chinese Communist Party -- like every other Chinese company, it is beholden to the party -- TikTok has the potential to be a powerful tool for the CCP to censor information and manipulate discourse outside China. A recent leak of TikTok's content regulation guidelines to the Guardian newspaper suggests that censorship is already happening.

Democratic countries should be alive to the potential threat TikTok may represent to robust discourse, particularly as it continues to grow in popularity across the world. U.S. Senator Marco Rubio recently urged Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to investigate the company; other democratic countries should take similar steps.

Content on social media apps inside the PRC must toe the party's line, and executives who fail to implement the party's Orwellian censorship regime can find themselves hauled before regulators, with their jobs or even their business on the line.

This already happened to ByteDance last year, when Beijing forced the company to close one of its apps inside China because of its failure to censor "objectionable" content, including mockery of the party and lewd jokes.

In response, ByteDance's CEO Zhang Yiming did what he had to do to protect himself and his company, releasing a letter of apology that signaled loyalty to Xi Jinping's hard-line agenda.

He promised to "introduce the correct values into its technology and products" by beefing up ByteDance's censorship teams and strengthening the role of the CCP inside the company.

ByteDance's CEO Zhang Yiming, pictured in April 2015, released a letter of apology that signaled loyalty to Xi Jinping's hard-line agenda.   © Imaginechina/AP

ByteDance's willingness to align itself with the CCP's propaganda agenda inside China presents obvious problems for democracies since the CCP has made clear that "telling the China story well" is one of its top external propaganda priorities.

That means presenting the country as a benign partner for mutually beneficial cooperation, and airbrushing out unflattering details like corrupt Belt and Road infrastructure lending deals or concentration camps in western China holding a million or more Uighurs.

TikTok may already be censoring political content overseas. One of the platform's earliest investors has said TikTok's goal is to remain "controversy-free" by keeping it focused on entertainment rather than politics -- precisely the approach the CCP takes to managing social media inside China.

When asked in April whether the platform would allow criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the company's head for India simply said: "No."

The content moderation guidelines leaked to the Guardian appeared to confirm that TikTok's content overseers were encouraged to erase "controversial" political subjects, including those sensitive to the CCP, but the company has said these have been superseded by new, different guidelines.

When asked whether TikTok censors content related to sensitive subjects such as ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, a company spokesperson said in a statement: "We do not remove videos from TikTok based on the presence of Hong Kong protest content, nor does the Chinese government request that TikTok censor content... TikTok's U.S. content and moderation policies are led by our U.S.-based team and are not influenced by any foreign government."

However, ByteDance has not provided specifics on its new content moderation guidelines, and refused to make executives available to discuss its censorship practices to Washington Post reporters, whose searches on TikTok found little content related to ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Similarly, as of writing, search results on TikTok for "NBA Hong Kong" and "Blizzard Hong Kong" -- two companies that have recently come under fire inside the U.S. for censoring speech on Hong Kong -- yielded little or no relevant content, while the same search on YouTube yielded a wealth of results.

ByteDance's alignment with the CCP and opaque approach to political content moderation also makes it reasonable to worry whether TikTok could be used as a tool to manipulate democratic discourse or interfere in elections overseas.

Were PRC intelligence or military agencies able to compel TikTok's cooperation, it would open the possibility of manipulation that would be far more targeted, subtle and difficult to detect than Russian interference on Twitter and Facebook in 2016.

It would not require any of the elaborate networks of fake accounts stood up by Russian attackers; it could be as simple as tweaking the algorithm to allow disinformation on a particular candidate or party to spread more widely, downplay content related to a certain candidate or subtly boost the get-out-the-vote messaging of another.

It might be hard for some to see how a platform "for kids" could negatively affect democratic discourse. But Facebook -- at the time a place mostly for college students -- was crucial for the Obama campaign's awareness-building in 2008, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a political superstar in the 2018 electoral cycle in large part because of her avid following of young fans on Instagram.

The next AOC -- whenever she or he emerges -- may come to prominence on TikTok, a platform that may already be censoring information on behalf of the CCP. Democratic countries like the U.S. and Japan would be well advised to take stock of the potential threat now.

Matt Schrader is a China Analyst with the Alliance for Securing Democracy at GMF. Before joining GMF he was the editor of the Jamestown China Brief at the Jamestown Foundation.

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