By Mike Pearl
TikTok is entering a world of pain right now, having just released a damning report about its own employees obtaining the data of U.S. users. Since this report comes at a time when a key cohort of Americans wants to ban the app altogether, you should expect TikTok to become a major political talking point as the 2024 election cycle ramps up.
On Thursday, ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, released the results of an internal investigation. Yes, ByteDance confirmed, four of its employees in China scooped up the data of two TikTok accounts belonging to U.S. journalists. And TikTok really, really wasn’t supposed to do that.
The report is emboldening high-profile enemies of TikTok like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, whose bill to ban TikTok on U.S. government devices passed in the Senate a little over a week ago. That bill still needs to pass in the House of Representatives to become law, but statewide bans of TikTok on government devices are already the law in Texas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Utah, West Virginia, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, Nebraska, and Montana.
Crucially, the report doesn’t contain similarly damning details about what was done with the data. It likely wasn’t printed out, clipped into a dossier, and handed to Xi Jinping himself, if that’s what you’re imagining. It seems instead, a handful of ByteDance employees who were on the lookout for internal leakers managed to find the user data and IP addresses of U.S. reporters in an ultimately thwarted — but demonically clever — effort to see if ByteDance employees suspected of leaking were ever physically near the journalists. That didn’t end up happening, and everyone involved in this effort was fired, supposedly.
But Hawley and his ilk have made it clear that they imagine TikTok is being used as something much scarier: a spying apparatus for the Chinese Communist Party, as spelled out in (to cite one random example) a tweet from Hawley’s fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz, in which he notes that TikTok tends to “dodge” questions about the communists and says “it’s clear they’re spying on users.”
It may be a stretch at this point to say there’s any evidence TikTok is part of China’s master plan to, I guess, turn Americans communist. But is simply obtaining the data a legitimate scandal in its own right? Absolutely.
That’s because in 2019 — when TikTok was an emerging internet phenomenon, and news coverage about it consistently contained passages that raised concerns about its associations with the Chinese government — its U.S. team rolled out some sweeping claims about data security. The most important of those claims is that U.S. user data is kept in the United States and doesn’t go to ByteDance headquarters in China. The U.S. team may have thought that when they produced that statement, but with Thursday’s revelation, the company now admits it wasn’t true.
And prior reports have intimated that ByteDance cooperates with Chinese propaganda efforts. At least one of these reports — and for the record, ByteDance denies it — is by Emily Baker-White, one of the two journalists ByteDance now admits to having spied on.
Another luminary of the anti-TikTok crowd in the Senate is Marco Rubio, who has introduced a bill just before this latest report came out that would ban TikTok nationwide (something former president Donald Trump tried to do unilaterally in 2020 but was stopped by the courts). In his press release about the bill, Rubio is pretty over the top. “We know it answers to the People’s Republic of China. There is no more time to waste on meaningless negotiations with a CCP-puppet company.”
Rubio glancingly alludes in his tweet about TikTok to similar practices by U.S.-based platforms. Indeed, U.S.-based social media platforms do cooperate with U.S. intelligence and help spread positive U.S. messages abroad. Moreover, U.S. intelligence gatherers — in particular, FBI agents — have openly attempted to “instantly search and monitor” social media posts and used elaborate data-mining schemes to gather intelligence about users. And at least one study of user behavior on Facebook in particular shows that knowledge of this spying affects users’ ability to feel like they can speak freely, a phenomenon called the “spiral of silence.” If this sounds familiar, that might be because of its similarity to the well-documented self-censorship practiced by members of the Chinese media.
“Banning” TikTok, by the way, is very unlikely to result in TikTok simply disappearing. Instead, it would most likely result in ByteDance recouping its loss by selling it to an American ally like Microsoft, as almost happened in 2020.
In other words, yes, TikTok is doing sketchy things with some U.S. user data, and it may have the power to do a lot more. But banning TikTok — or selling it to the likes of Microsoft, a company with a history of cooperating with spies — would not stop any social media user from being spied on, or influenced, by intelligence agencies.
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