TikTok’s Pro-China Tilt – The New York Times

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By Equipo
11 Min Read

The debate over TikTok has shifted very quickly. Just a few months ago, it seemed unlikely that the U.S. government would force ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, to sell it. The platform is popular, and Congress rarely passes legislation aimed at a single company.

Yet a bipartisan TikTok bill — packaged with aid for Ukraine, Taiwan, Israel and Palestinians — is now on its way to becoming law. Late last night, the Senate passed the measure, 79 to 18, three days after the House passed it, 360 to 58. President Biden said he would sign it today. If ByteDance does not sell TikTok within 12 months, it will be banned in the United States.

What explains the turnabout?

I have asked that question of policymakers and their aides in recent weeks and heard a similar answer from many. Parts of the debate over TikTok — about the overall benefits and drawbacks of social media, for instance — are complicated, and they would not justify the forced sale of a single company, the policymakers say. But at least one problem with TikTok falls into a different category.

It has become a leading source of information in this country. About one-third of Americans under 30 regularly get their news from it. TikTok is also owned by a company based in the leading global rival of the United States. And that rival, especially under President Xi Jinping, treats private companies as extensions of the state. “This is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government,” Christopher Wray, the director of the F.B.I., has told Congress.

When you think about the issue in these terms, you realize there may be no other situation in the world that resembles China’s control of TikTok. American law has long restricted foreign ownership of television or radio stations, even by companies based in friendly countries. “Limits on foreign ownership have been a part of federal communications policy for more than a century,” the legal scholar Zephyr Teachout explained in The Atlantic.

The same is true in other countries. India doesn’t allow Pakistan to own a leading Indian publication, and vice versa. China, for its part, bars access not only to American publications but also to Facebook, Instagram and other apps.

TikTok as propaganda

Already, there is evidence that China uses TikTok as a propaganda tool.

Posts related to subjects that the Chinese government wants to suppress — like Hong Kong protests and Tibet — are strangely missing from the platform, according to a recent report by two research groups. The same is true about sensitive subjects for Russia and Iran, countries that are increasingly allied with China.

Consider this data from the report:

The report also found a wealth of hashtags promoting independence for Kashmir, a region of India where the Chinese and Indian militaries have had recent skirmishes. A separate Wall Street Journal analysis, focused on the war in Gaza, found evidence that TikTok was promoting extreme content, especially against Israel. (China has generally sided with Hamas.)

Adding to this circumstantial evidence is a lawsuit from a former ByteDance executive who claimed that its Beijing offices included a special unit of Chinese Communist Party members who monitored “how the company advanced core Communist values.”

Many members of Congress and national security experts find these details unnerving. “You’re placing the control of information — like what information America’s youth gets — in the hands of America’s foremost adversary,” Mike Gallagher, a House Republican from Wisconsin, told Jane Coaston of Times Opinion. Yvette Clarke, a New York Democrat, has called Chinese ownership of TikTok “an unprecedented threat to American security and to our democracy.”

In response, TikTok denies that China’s government influences its algorithm and has called the outside analyses of its content misleading. “Comparing hashtags is an inaccurate reflection of on-platform activity,” Alex Haurek, a TikTok spokesman, told me.

I find the company’s defense too vague to be persuasive. It doesn’t offer a logical explanation for the huge gaps by subject matter and boils down to: Trust us. Doing so would be easier if the company were more transparent. Instead, shortly after the publication of the report comparing TikTok and Instagram, TikTok altered the search tool that the analysts had used, making future research harder, as my colleague Sapna Maheshwari reported.

The move resembled a classic strategy of authoritarian governments: burying inconvenient information.

The coming fight

The fight over TikTok won’t end even when Biden signs the bill. Chinese officials have signaled that they will not allow ByteDance to sell TikTok, and ByteDance plans to fight the law in court. It will have some American allies, too.

On the political left, groups like the A.C.L.U. say that the TikTok bill violates the First Amendment. (You can read the A.C.L.U.’s argument here.) On the right, Jeff Yass, who’s both a TikTok investor and a major Republican campaign donor, is leading the fight against the bill. He is also a former board member at the Cato Institute, which has become a prominent TikTok defender. Yass may be the person who convinced Donald Trump to reverse his position and oppose the bill.

These opponents hope to use TikTok’s popularity among younger Americans to create a backlash in coming weeks. And they may have some success. But they are in a much weaker position than they were a few months ago.

As Carl Hulse, The Times’s chief Washington correspondent, told me, “The fears that TikTok gives China too much of a way into the U.S. seem to be overriding any political concerns.” There is a long history of members of Congress overcoming partisan divisions to address what they see as a national security threat. Even in today’s polarized atmosphere, it can still happen.

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