Press Releases

The Tech Oversight Project Issues Statement on TikTok CEO Appearing Before Congress

Jan 30, 2023

View The Tech Oversight Project’s TikTok research file here.

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, The Tech Oversight Project issued a statement regarding TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 23rd. The tech platform has come under recent scrutiny for threats to U.S. national securitymisusing users’ datathrottling pro-democratic content, and spying on journalists – and that’s just in the last 100 days.

“There’s no denying that TikTok’s massive reach in the United States makes us more vulnerable. There will always be the potential for the Chinese Communist Party to leverage its connections to ByteDance to manipulate content, limit what information appears in users’ feeds, and spread disinformation. That possibility should rightfully give lawmakers pause and reason to further investigate TikTok to make sure U.S. users are protected,” said Kyle Morse, Deputy Executive Director of the Tech Oversight Project. “When it comes to spreading disinformation, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Youtube, and Twitter are partners in crime that have all knowingly acted against American national interests and denied playing leading roles in helping authoritarian regimes spread hate speech, disinformation, and discontent the world over. Congressional leaders need to hold all bad actors accountable and provide oversight to any social media platform that makes the U.S. more vulnerable to foreign threats.”

TikTok’s Role in Spreading Disinformation:

  • TikTok is inundated with misinformation, with a recent study by NewsGuard finding that nearly 20% of videos provided in its search results on major news topics contained false or misleading claims.

  • A disinformation expert with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue observed that TikTok offered a “very permissible space” for bad actors to spread viral disinformation.

  • TikTok has become a powerful tool for state disinformation. Recent examples include:

    • The platform was “instrumental in the spread of misinformation” during the 2022 Philippine presidential election in rewriting the history of the Marcos regime and electing Ferdinand Marcos’ son.

    • TikTok was widely used to spread disinformation in the 2022 Kenyan presidential election, including the dissemination of an altered image of a candidate holding a knife to his neck while wearing blood-soaked clothes with a caption declaring him a murderer which was viewed more than 500K times before being removed.

    • The Russian invasion of Ukraine “supersized the issues facing TikTok” with misinformation running rampant across the platform including Russian influencers paid to spread pro-Kremlin propaganda.

  • TikTok has been unwilling to provide transparency to stop disinformation:

    • The New York Times reported, “Researchers said that misinformation would continue to thrive on TikTok as long as the platform refused to release data about the origins of its videos or share insight into its algorithms.”

    • The director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics said, “The consensus is that it’s a five-alarm fire … We don’t have a good understanding of what’s going on there.”

TikTok’s Misuse of Users’ Data:

  • A cybersecurity firm review of the app found that TikTok’s data collection practices were “overly intrusive” and suggested that the only reason this information has been gathered is for “data harvesting.”

  • In June 2022, Buzzfeed reported on internal TikTok meeting audio that revealed China-based employees of ByteDance repeatedly – and as recently as January 2022 – accessed U.S. TikTok user data despite the company’s assurances about storing U.S. user data domestically.

    • During a September 2022 Senate hearing, the COO of TikTok refused to commit to cutting the flow of U.S. user data to China.

  • TikTok’s in-app browser includes code that allows monitoring of keystrokes and user clicks, making it possible for the app to capture sensitive information like passwords and credit card numbers.

    • A software researcher observed, “This is a non-trivial engineering task. This does not happen by mistake or randomly.”

Chinese Ownership of TikTok Poses National Security Threats and Challenges to U.S. Regulators:

  • TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, maintains close control of the company with former employees confirming that “boundaries between TikTok and ByteDance were so blurry as to be almost non-existent.”

  • An August 2022 review found 300 TikTok and ByteDance employees who previously worked for Chinese state media outlets, including 15 that appeared to be employed concurrently at both.

  • ByteDance owns two of the most popular apps in China, Douyin and Toutiao which comply with strict Chinese censorship laws. Chinese state media accounts are among the most popular on Douyin with millions of followers.

  • Former ByteDance employees alleged the company instructed staff to push pro-China content on its now-defunct English language news app, TopBuzz. At its height, TopBuzz had 40 million monthly users in 2018.

  • In a September 2022 Senate hearing, the TikTok COO “avoided saying whether ByteDance would keep US user data from the Chinese government or whether ByteDance may be influenced by China.”

  • ByteDance, as a Chinese company, is required to follow Chinese law which has no process for appealing or protesting requests for data.

  • ByteDance’s continued ownership of TikTok has raised concerns that the government could compel data espionage or engage in the “soft power” of strategic algorithm manipulation.

  • There are multiple reports that TikTok itself has engaged in pro-China content moderation:

    • In 2019, The Guardian reported on leaked TikTok content moderation documents instructing censorship of videos mentioning Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence and Falun Gong.

    • In 2020, the Intercept reported on leaked TikTok livestream moderation guidelines that instructed censorship for content that harmed “national honor” or broadcast content about “state organs such as police.”

    • In 2019, TikTok appeared to censor content on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

  • The Chinese government has an extensive history of using social media for disinformation campaigns, including promoting pro-Russian disinformation on its invasion of Ukraine, smearing protestors in Hong Kong and clamping down on reports of Uyghur human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government.

For the full research report, click here.

Jump to Content