TikTok’s Potential to Influence US Election Draws Senators’ Scrutiny

July 29, 2020 Updated: July 30, 2020

The U.S. administration is reviewing popular social media app TikTok over potential security risks to decide whether a ban is necessary, President Donald Trump said on July 29, as the company draws growing scrutiny over its Chinese ownership.

“We’re looking at TikTok. We’re thinking about making a decision,” Trump told reporters before departing for a flight to Texas.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added that TikTok is under federal government review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which he chairs, and that the agency would make a recommendation to Trump this week.

“We have lots of alternatives,” said Mnuchin, who was accompanying the president.

CFIUS, which scrutinizes foreign deals for potential national security risks, began a probe into the popular video-sharing app in November 2019 over its $1 billion acquisition of U.S. app Musical.ly.

Lawmakers in recent months have repeatedly criticized the company for its censorship of politically sensitive content and its handling of personal data. It’s also seeing a backlash from other countries, including Japan, Australia, and India.

Election Meddling Worries

On July 28, six senators wrote to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray, and acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, expressing concerns that TikTok may open the door for the Chinese regime to conduct influence operations and sway U.S. elections.

They questioned whether the app’s ownership by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance could lead the company to suppress U.S. users, and whether Beijing could deploy bot networks on the platform to manipulate narratives to its favor.

The app has previously censored an American teenager who criticized the Chinese regime’s mistreatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, as well as a Chinese student who mocked the Chinese anthem.

The Chinese Communist Party “devotes significant resources to conduct information operations overseas” and propagate its narratives, the senators noted.

Officials have raised concerns about English language editions of Chinese state-owned outlets that have spent millions to run supplements in prominent U.S. newspapers. As the pandemic wrought havoc globally, social media platforms also became major tools for the regime to broadcast disinformation in order to deflect blame about the Chinese regime’s mishandling of the virus outbreak.

Defending the company, a TikTok representative said that the app, while not a “go-to” for political news, was “proactively investing to safeguard our app” and drawing past experiences from peers.

“TikTok already has a strict policy against disinformation, and we don’t accept political ads,” the representative told Reuters, adding that content and moderation policies are led by a California-based team and aren’t “influenced by any foreign government.”

Wray warned earlier this month that the Chinese regime is engaging in a “broad, diverse campaign of theft and malign influence” with “authoritarian efficiency.”

“China, as led by the Chinese Communist Party, is going to continue to try to misappropriate our ideas, influence our policymakers, manipulate our public opinion, and steal our data,” he said in a July 7 speech. “They will use an all-tools and all-sectors approach—and that demands our own all-tools and all-sectors approach in response.”

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