News Analysis By Leah Ahdoot and Michael Tamsuriyamit
TikTok is one of the world’s fastest growing social media platforms, thanks in part to its popularity with tweens and teens. But the platform is also attracting the attention of several U.S. senators because of potential threats to national security and privacy. How can a platform hosting lip-syncing teenagers pose a threat to national security? The answer has nothing to do with amateur music and dance videos and everything to do with TikTok’s owner, the Chinese company, ByteDance.
According to the New York Times story, “China’s TikTok Blazes New Ground. That Could Doom It,” by Li Yuan, Senators Chuck Schumer and Tom Cotton believe groups behind the foreign disinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. election considered using TikTok’s platform. They also suspect that TikTok is responsible for removing or censoring “missing” videos of Hong Kong protests posted on its platform. TikTok denies this and says videos supporting the protestors are visible.
Pro-democracy citizen journalists in Hong Kong have increasingly resorted to social media to document the protests and police violence that has now received worldwide attention. China, meanwhile, has increased its efforts to suppress the pro-democracy demonstrations by censoring any content that is perceived as anti-China.
Censorship undermines the primary purpose of journalism: “To provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing”, as stated in Kovach and Rosenstiel’s The Elements of Journalism. Although the visuals and audio found on social media are initially considered raw information – information that is unfiltered and unverified – these posts can and have become direct evidence of what’s happening in Hong Kong once verified by an independent and accountable news outlet.
Takeaway: Since its launch, the Chinese-owned app has kept pace with the big three – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – with 1.5 billion global downloads and 122 million U.S. users. No other Chinese social media platform has achieved this kind of global reach, and that’s what makes it a potential target for those who might want to influence the 2020 U.S. election. So far, there’s no evidence that TikTok is misusing user data or being hijacked by Beijing or any nefarious actor to spread disinformation, but after a run-in with the Chinese government last year for hosting “vulgar videos,” ByteDance did cave in to government demands to expand its “content moderation team” from 6,000 to 10,000, and coincidentally, began featuring stories about Xi Jinping, China’s leader, at the top of its feed.