Why TikTok is a National Security Threat

November 20, 2023 Topic: TikTok Region: United States Blog Brand: Techland Tags: Great Power CompetitionTechnologyChinaTikTok

Why TikTok is a National Security Threat

TikTok could be the biggest foreign intelligence operation in U.S. history. It’s time for Congress to act.

As the war rages between Israel and Hamas, TikTok’s proliferation of anti-Israel content has reignited the debate about whether the platform should be legal in the United States. While Congress stopped short of enacting legislation last spring, it’s time lawmakers recognized the existential risk TikTok poses to U.S. security interests and take action accordingly. At no point in U.S. history has a foreign entity owned such an unprecedented platform for the mass dissemination of potent personalized propaganda and the mass collection of private American user data. TikTok has all the hallmarks of the most extensive intelligence operation a foreign power has ever conducted against the United States.

The U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission (USCC) released its annual report to Congress last week. As the 800-page report details, “an increasing number of Americans rely on new media, like TikTok, for their news. TikTok, which is privately owned by a Chinese company but ultimately must be responsive to the demands of the Party-state, provides Beijing with a potential avenue to reach its more than 150 million users in the United States.” As of last year, a Pew Research report found that 33 percent of American TikTok users regularly get their news on the platform. More than 50 percent of “Generation Z” also use TikTok as their search engine of choice. 

Elected officials, including House Select China Committee Chairman Mike Gallagher and Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Marco Rubio, denounced TikTok as “misinformation and indoctrination” promoting thinly veiled Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state propaganda. Skeptics allege these concerns are overblown as the information on the platform is entirely user-generated. I spent years working on these issues at Google and believe the skeptics are wrong. 

The Chinese government can distort the information users see on TikTok in two ways. First, it can leverage its influence over the company to ensure the ranking algorithm promotes the Party line, amplifying certain sources, viewpoints, or topics while burying others. “We’ve seen that TikTok tends to feed these terrible impulses with an algorithm that amplifies fringe and extremist positions,” said Senate Intel Chief Mark Warner. 

Just in the last few days, Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America” went viral and surfaced videos with over 14.2 million views. At a time when the United States seeks to support its ally Israel, an analysis of the two most commonly used hashtags related to the war shows that 96.5 percent of the Israel content that TikTok displays to users is #FreePalestine content compared to 3.5 percent for #StandWithIsrael, according to TikTok’s own data. As Hollywood celebrity Sasha Baron Cohen recently decried: “What is happening at TikTok is it is creating the biggest antisemitic movement since the Nazis.”

No matter the topic, TikTok is invariably skewed against American security interests, consistently mirroring CCP talking points while promoting self-destructive behaviors among America’s youth. Other reports have found TikTok censoring and suppressing content about Xinjiang, Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and other topics deemed sensitive by the CCP. While at the same time, TikTok promotes “chroming” (sniffing glue) and the “blackout challenge” in America, the Chinese version of the app, Chairman Gallagher notes, “shows kids science experiments and other educational content.” This should not come as a surprise: TikTok is ultimately answerable to its parent company’s chief editor, Zhang Fuping, who is also the boss of that company’s internal Communist Party committee. 

Second, as I detailed in my book, The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power, the CCP can distort information on TikTok and engage in censorship by way of firehosing: “malicious foreign governments spray so much information onto the Internet—as if through a giant fire hose—that it swamps everything else.” As I write in my book, firehosing is tantamount to censorship by other means. The information published by state-backed mouthpieces competes with information that authoritarian governments would like to hide by diluting it and distracting from it. It can be done either to suppress legitimate information or to shape a preferred narrative.

Consider that Beijing spends $10 billion per year on propaganda and employs a legion of two million social media “cheerleaders”—derisively called the “50 Cent Army” after the amount they’re supposedly paid per post—to issue a torrent of praise for China’s leaders. By some measures, these digital supporters produce almost half a billion posts a year extolling a positive (and frequently nationalistic) vision of China and harassing netizens deemed critics to silence them. 

We’re seeing this pattern play out on TikTok. A recent open letter co-signed by Amy Schumer, Jason Biggs, and other celebrities reported that “Jewish creators—who regularly enliven the For You page with videos of dancing, cooking, singing, and positivity of all kinds – are being bombarded with abhorrent inhumanity solely due to our ethno-religious identity.” 

Chinese law enforcement agencies were also found recently carrying out a massive influence campaign targeting more than fifty online platforms—including Meta, X (formerly Twitter), YouTube, as well as TikTok. The promoted content included criticisms of the United States and positive commentary on China’s governance of Xinjiang, among other issues related to Beijing’s political agenda. These efforts are all part of a broader multibillion-dollar information operation to harass critics, including Americans, and shape the global information environment.

Far from being a “public square” that promotes free speech, TikTok is more analogous to a “megaphone for the CCP.” Decades ago, these same national security concerns over the influence of foreign adversarial governments in American media stations prompted the U.S. government to restrict foreign ownership of television and radio. Today, social media arguably has far greater influence than traditional forms of media ever did.

Indeed, Beijing has already accessed TikTok’s data on several occasions. According to a report published by Forbes earlier this month, the ByteDance app that stores nearly all of TikTok’s internal communications was subjected to a “wide-ranging inspection” before the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) TwentiethNational Congress last year. The inspection included reviewing the company’s “product network security, data security, personal information, and daily operations,” among other highly sensitive information. 

Leaks of internal company documents marked as “sensitive” also revealed that “TikTok stores the most sensitive financial data of its biggest stars — including those in its Creator Fund — on servers in China.” In June, TikTok admitted that American Creators’ user data is also stored in China. We also know that TikTok inappropriately surveilled the locations of journalists who wrote negative stories about the company. These revelations came on top of numerous former ByteDance employees separately corroborating the claim that the Chinese government has “supreme access to all the company data, even data stored in the United States” and that ByteDance has repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about U.S. TikTok users and has “access to everything.” The former ByteDance employees also alleged that the company’s Beijing office has a unit of CCP members sometimes called “the Committee,” which oversees the company’s apps and “guide[s] how the company advanced core Communist values.”

This pattern is consistent with the CCP’s longstanding record of leveraging its intelligence laws to coerce companies into compliance with intelligence requests and advance the Communist Party’s agenda. As this year’s USCC report outlines, the Department of Justice found that a director at Zoom covertly complied with Chinese government requests to disrupt a virtual meeting commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre and ban Chinese dissidents from the platform. This was a clear example of Chinese civil-military fusion: Chinese companies and executives cannot deny the CCP’s requests for data when Beijing asks. 

When TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew testified under oath in March of this year, he claimed that “ByteDance is not […] controlled by the Chinese government.” He asserted that he had not disclosed TikTok user data to the Chinese government and would refuse to do so. Senators Blackburn and Blumenthal are right: TikTok misled Congress. 

As the USCC report highlights, it is time for Congress to consider legislative restrictions on Chinese social media mobile applications. American policymakers should view the current tidal wave of CCP-favored anti-Israel disinformation on TikTok as a window into how the CCP will leverage the app to influence critical American policy debates every time our country experiences a major national event moving forward. The impact on America’s policy-making process cannot be understated. 

I have met with more than 100 lawmakers on Capitol Hill. All of them agree: TikTok is a clear and present threat to the national security of the United States. As the USCC recommended in this year’s report, Congress should urgently consider legislative restrictions on Chinese social media companies. Beginning early next year, the USCC will hold a series of hearings, which I will co-chair, to scrutinize further the use of Chinese technologies in the United States. TikTok will receive the continued public scrutiny it warrants.

Jacob Helberg was appointed by Speaker Kevin McCarthy as Commissioner of the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. He also serves as a Senior Policy Advisor to the CEO of Palantir Technologies, where he leads efforts to explore national security trends, changes in the global security landscape, and emerging tech policy issues. Jacob is also the author of The Wires of War: Technology and the Global Struggle for Power (Simon & Schuster, October 2021), which received bipartisan accolades from President Clinton and the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul. Helberg is also an Adjunct Senior Fellow for the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS, a Senior Advisor at the Stanford University Center on Geopolitics and Technology, and a member of the Manufacturing Leadership Council at the National Association of Manufacturers. From 2016 to 2020, Helberg was Google’s global lead for the company’s internal global product policy efforts to combat foreign interference. Prior to joining Google, Helberg was a member of the founding team of GeoQuant, a geopolitical risk forecasting technology company acquired by Fitch Ratings. Jacob Helberg received his M.S. in cybersecurity risk and strategy from New York University.