Listening to TikTok’s spokespeople, you would think they represent an ordinary Silicon Valley tech company. But then again, most businesses don’t have to release statements asserting that "[t]he Chinese Communist Party has neither direct nor indirect control" of their operations.
I’ve seen a lot of blatant lies from corporations over the years, but this may be one of the worst. The evidence that China is using TikTok to spy on and influence American citizens is clear, and it only keeps mounting as time goes on. Moreover, Beijing’s influence on ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, is undeniable. Not only does Chinese law compel ByteDance to hand over data at a moment’s notice, but the Chinese government also holds an ownership stake in the tech giant’s key domestic subsidiary.
As the nation debates TikTok and its risks, it is important to explain exactly what is happening behind the scenes. On the surface, TikTok appears to be just an app for making funny, engaging videos. What’s so dangerous about that?
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The problem is that TikTok is much more than a platform for talented content creators. With roughly 1 billion users worldwide and 130 million users in the United States, including two-thirds of America’s teens, TikTok is also an extremely effective tool for disseminating ideas and information. And it is one of the largest treasure troves of U.S. consumer data in the world.
In the 21st century, ideas, information, and data can be weaponized quickly and without the knowledge of those targeted. There are few groups more ready and willing to do this than the Chinese Communist Party. This has been true since the days of Mao Zedong, but under Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, Beijing has become especially focused on weaponizing the digital realm.
In 2015, Xi established a new division of the People’s Liberation Army to lead the charge in public opinion manipulation and psychological warfare. Since then, Strategic Support Force (SSF) researchers have published papers and dissertations on how to identify internet users across different social media networks and automate propaganda dissemination on the web.
Remember that whoever has access to and controls TikTok can influence all of the app’s users. This is not about a company gaming an algorithm to sell sneakers or sketchy healthcare supplements –– it is about an adversarial government manipulating tens of millions of Americans without their knowledge. No one should entrust Xi’s psy-ops warriors with that privilege.
Another source of danger is the Ministry of State Security (MSS), China’s premier spy agency and secret police force. Analyst Adam Kozy reports that Beijing has specifically tasked the MSS with synthesizing "big data collection for targeting purposes." Don’t imagine for a second there are any legal barriers in China to stop it from doing this.
Nor is any of this hypothetical. On the contrary, we see it happening in real time. Public documents accessed by the Washington Post reveal Chinese "state media, propaganda departments, police, military and cyber regulators" buying software to mine data from American social media platforms to gather "information on foreign targets."
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Now think about what Beijing will do with the scope and reach of TikTok. China is already accessing American data through backdoors in the app. That data is being used to track reporters, censor references to the genocide in Xinjiang, and suppress votes for political candidates who are tough on Beijing. It is even pushing young teens toward self-harm.
Things will only get worse as the Party’s ability to weaponize technology advances. The SSF, the MSS and other digital operatives will use TikTok to manipulate children and young adults, exacerbate our divisions, further weaken our social fabric, target anti-Xi voices and sabotage U.S. government operations.
The vulnerabilities are almost limitless, and it would be beyond naïve to believe Xi won’t exploit them. After all, this is the man who warned America against "bullying" and pledged, "Whoever nurses delusions of doing that will crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese."
Those are not the words of your friendly Silicon Valley CEO. Those are the words of a man preparing for battle. We cannot afford to ignore the national security threat posed by his access to our data. Congress has a bipartisan bill to ban all social media apps controlled by foreign adversaries including TikTok.
Now we just need to find the leadership and political will in Washington to act.