TikTok's China problem is back

China reportedly attempted to use ByteDance to influence Americans. Now TikTok is in a trust deficit

TikTok's China problem is back
“Map of China wearing a mustache and glasses,” as interpreted by OpenAI’s DALL-E

Today, let’s talk about long-simmering fears related to TikTok that may be edging closer to reality.

As ByteDance’s short-form video app has risen to become the world’s most popular mobile entertainment platform, the company has been hit with two key concerns by US officials.

One is that the Chinese government might demand access to any data that the company has collected about Americans for surveillance or other purposes. The other is that the Chinese government might use the app to promote Chinese interests generally — taking advantage of TikTok’s vast reach to spread pro-China viewpoints, or perhaps even to sow dissent within America, as Russians sought to do using Facebook and Instagram in 2016.

TikTok has long sought to distance itself from its Chinese parent company. “Downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, downplay AI,” read bullet points in a 2020 “master messaging document” uncovered last week by Gizmodo.

It has also insisted that it will not share data or otherwise be used as a tool of the Chinese state. “We have not and will not share user data with the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked,” reads a bullet point from the same document.

And yet over the course of this summer, a steady drip of reporting has at least begun to cast doubt on TikTok’s rather strident defenses.

Last month, I wrote about the company’s difficulties answering the first concern: that data collected by the company could be accessed and misused by the Chinese state.

In June, an investigation from BuzzFeed found that Americans’ data had repeatedly been accessed in China. The company itself had discovered the issue as part of an ongoing series of audits, and announced a commitment to cracking down on the practice. Since 2020, when TikTok was very nearly forcibly divested from ByteDance as a gift to then-President Trump’s campaign donors, the company has been working to move American users’ data to US-based servers and more fully account for the way that it moves data around the world.

This has turned out to be a difficult task, for the reasons I explored in that piece. Lawmakers have expressed concern, and called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate. And yet so far at least, it’s unclear that any real harm has come as the result of TikTok imperfectly managing the storage and transfer of US user data. The larger issue — to me, anyway — is that Congress still has yet to pass national privacy legislation that dictates how companies of all types and national origins ought to behave when managing our data.

I’ve been much more concerned about the second possibility raised by TikTok critics: that the app won’t be used as a tool of surveillance so much as it will be a tool of influence. To that end, I was interested to read the account of former employees of TopBuzz, a US-based news app that ByteDance shut down in 2020. At one point the app had 40 million users — and former employees say they were told to promote pro-China content at the top of the app.

Here’s Emily Baker-White at BuzzFeed:

The four former ByteDance employees, each of whom worked on TopBuzz, claimed that ByteDance instructed members of its staff to place specific pieces of pro-China messaging in the app. According to three of the former employees, TopBuzz staff sometimes promoted content by “pinning” it to the top of the app. One former employee remembered staff posting panda videos in the app, along with videos promoting travel to China. Another remembered a staff member pinning a video in which a white man talked about the benefits of moving his startup to China. […]

One source characterized most of the pro-China messages as “soft” rather than overt political statements. But, the person said, “Let’s be real, this was not something you could say no to. If they don’t do it, somebody’s going to jail.”

A ByteDance spokesman told BuzzFeed: “The claim that TopBuzz — which was discontinued years ago — pinned pro-Chinese government content to the top of the app or worked to promote it is false and ridiculous.“ (The statement goes on from there, and doesn’t really address any of the concerns raised, and suggests that if it were true BuzzFeed would have discovered it before partnering with TopBuzz, which … what?)

Alright, you say, but that’s TopBuzz, and no one cares about TopBuzz, not least because it’s dead. But then came a report Friday that two years ago a Chinese government body which does public relations asked TikTok about how to go about creating an account to promote propaganda. Here’s Olivia Solon at Bloomberg:

In an April 2020 message addressed to Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s head of government relations for the UK, Ireland, Netherlands and Israel, a colleague flagged a “Chinese government entity that’s interested in joining TikTok but would not want to be openly seen as a government account as the main purpose is for promoting content that showcase the best side of China (some sort of propaganda).”

The messages indicate that some of ByteDance’s most senior government relations team, including Kanter and US-based Erich Andersen, Global Head of Corporate Affairs and General Counsel, discussed the matter internally but pushed back on the request, which they described as “sensitive.” TikTok used the incident to spark an internal discussion about other sensitive requests, the messages state.

To be clear, this is an account of TikTok doing the right thing. The Chinese government asked for something, and the company said no. And when I spoke with TikTok today the company told me that the request had been quite informal.

TikTok often finds itself in positions like this, being asked to prove that something never happened, or that something which did happen was innocuous. Negatives are famously difficult to prove — that goes double for tech companies, and triple for tech companies based in China. In a low-trust environment like ours, even seemingly benign stories about panda videos being pinned to the top of a defunct news app can be cause for alarm.

And yet … I do find myself alarmed by some of the recent reporting on the company. Not because I think TikTok has acted recklessly, or against American interests, but because it seems increasingly possible that the Chinese government may ultimately require it to do so.

For the first few years of TikTok’s rise, it was easy to assume that the app enjoyed a kind of benign neglect from the Chinese government. For any key strategic objective, the country’s formidable intelligence apparatus would seemingly have far better means of accomplishing its objectives than an app known best for viral dance challenges.

But that was before TikTok became the biggest app in the world. We now know that two years ago, the Chinese government was making inquiries — however informal — about how the platform might be used as a strategic asset. And one hardly has to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine that the country’s questions on the subject did not end with that single question.

All of which raises the question of what TikTok ought to do next. To some degree, the question feels impossible: the whole point is that countries are ultimately subject to the laws of the nations in which they operate, and ByteDance will only ever be Chinese.

At the same time, last week TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas said the company would soon begin releasing anonymized public data sets to researchers to help them investigate content trends and other aspects of the platform. Details on the program are still still scarce, but it seems at least possible that such a program might serve as a check on the use of TikTok in influence campaigns.

ByteDance will only ever have limited credibility when it comes to the assurances they make that the company will resist intrusions by the Chinese government. Opening up their algorithms to independent academics, though, offers the company a fresh chance to show that it has nothing to hide. And the more reporting that comes out about TikTok’s Chinese entanglements this summer, the more urgent that need is coming to feel.

Elsewhere in TikTok: The company appears to be working on a standalone music app. And the New Yorker asks whether TikTok’s rise means it’s truly the end for “legacy social media platforms.”



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Send me tips, comments, questions, and TikToks promoting Chinese soft power: casey@platformer.news.