The Chinese government could use TikTok as a powerful and dangerous propaganda tool after installing Communist Party figures in senior positions at the social media giant’s parent company.
A detailed submission to a federal parliamentary inquiry into foreign interference on social media warns TikTok’s greatest risk to Australia is that the Chinese Communist Party could use it to influence public discourse to suit its interests, on top of the application’s controversial data-gathering technology.
The submission is part-authored by ex-government official John Garnaut, a former journalist at and , and draws heavily on analysis of Chinese-language sources and archived internet material.
“TikTok provides Beijing with the latent capability to weaponise the platform by suppressing, amplifying and otherwise calibrating narratives in ways that microtarget political constituencies abroad,” the submission says, noting that use of the short video streaming app has exploded in Western countries including Australia.
The report claims a detailed review of corporate filings and other company material confirms that not only is TikTok owned by Chinese company ByteDance but that ByteDance is so tied to the Chinese Communist Party and government agencies that it “can no longer be accurately described as a private enterprise”. To support this claim, the report cites as an example Zhang Fuping, who is both ByteDance’s Communist Party committee secretary and its editor-in-chief.
“In our view, ByteDance has demonstrated sufficient capability, intent, and precedent in promoting Party propaganda through its Chinese platforms to create material risk that they would do the same through TikTok,” it says.
The report’s tabling comes at a particularly sensitive time for TikTok in Australia, with Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil set to review the findings of a departmental probe that is considering banning the app on government devices as well as its potential as a disinformation tool.
The chair of the Senate’s select committee on foreign interference through social media, Liberal MP James Paterson, described the Garnaut submission as “the most comprehensive effort to map the intimate and extensive links between TikTok and the Chinese Communist Party”.
“It shatters the myth this is somehow a private company operating on a normal commercial basis… [and] makes a mockery of TikTok’s lame defence that they would refuse to co-operate with Chinese intelligence agencies if asked,” he said.
“The Albanese government must urgently remove the app from government devices and rapidly develop a plan to protect the millions of other Australians whose privacy and security is at risk from TikTok today.”
Laws are imminent in the United States that would give the Biden administration legal authority to ban TikTok and other social media companies, with American officials pressuring ByteDance to divest its ownership of TikTok. The European Commission has banned the app from staff devices and the British government has indicated it may do likewise.
TikTok’s executives have stressed that the Chinese government does not interfere with the company, which it says is privately owned and run and exists purely for entertainment.
“If specific concerns exist about TikTok’s practices, we are always happy to provide accurate information about how we work. But wild speculation about conspiracies is regrettable…” said TikTok Australia general manager Lee Hunter.
“The most cursory search of our platform for politically contentious subject matter will reveal we do not moderate content on TikTok, based on the political sensitivities of any government, including China’s.”
Mr Hunter said TikTok operated no differently to many other global and Australian companies.
TikTok has previously stated: “No foreign government, or person controlled by or acting on behalf of a foreign government, owns any significant interest or any other affirmative or negative rights or powers in ByteDance.”
The company did not answer a question about Zhang Fuping’s roles, which forms part of the Garnaut group’s challenge to TikTok’s claims of independence.
It is common for Chinese companies to have internal CCP secretaries, but his seniority in the business and close relationship with high-ranking party figures is described in the report as an indicator of the Communist Party’s grip on ByteDance and ability to influence TikTok.
The report alleges that the CCP has sought to use Zhang’s “triple-hatted position incorporating the roles of party secretary, editor-in-chief, and vice president” of ByteDance as a means of projecting party control and influence in the company.
State officials from the Cyberspace Administration of Beijing Municipality directed ByteDance to establish an “internet content security committee”, with party members serving as content “gatekeepers” and overseeing “editing, auditing, technology, products, marketing, commercialisation, and other operational areas across the company”.
Zhang also attended a 2017 signing ceremony with a high-ranking official from the People’s Armed Police, the CCP’s domestic paramilitary force, and in 2019 announced how the Chinese version of TikTok, Douyin, would help to “spread the positive energy of the People’s Armed Police”.
Zhang sits on a ByteDance subsidiary board with senior CCP cyberspace administration official Wu Shugang, who made headlines a decade ago by saying: “I only have one wish — that one day I can cut off the dog head” of liberal Chinese people with Western values.
Documents referenced in the parliamentary submission also describe how Zhang serves as executive vice president at the Beijing Communication Industry Association, a CCP aligned organisation that embraces “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics … as an operational guide”.
The report has also referred to a speech given by Zhang in 2018 in which he declared ByteDance should “transmit the correct political direction, public opinion guidance and value orientation into every business and product line, use values to guide algorithms”.
While the comments were not linked directly to TikTok, the parliamentary submission details an overlap between senior ByteDance and TikTok managers and the fact that several previously worked in China’s closely controlled state media.
TikTok chief operating officer Vanessa Pappas told a US Senate hearing last year that there were no CCP members among the company’s American and Singaporean leadership.
“Everyone who makes a strategic decision at this platform is not a member of the CCP,” she said.
The parliamentary submission also attacks ByteDance’s claims it “does not produce, operate or disseminate any products or services related to surveillance”, documenting how the firm’s Chinese subsidiaries “serves Beijing’s security and repression systems in direct and explicit ways”.
“We found Douyin, TikTok’s analogue in China, directly aids party propaganda and repression and its top leaders are ‘double-hatted’ in official propaganda organisations,” the report states.
“Based on our evaluation of the party-state’s access to and control over ByteDance and TikTok, we assess high risks that the party will seek to leverage the company’s innovative algorithms and access to key data to develop its own big-data harvesting and analysis capabilities.
“The evidence points strongly to Beijing’s interest in leveraging private sector data – including foreign data and that of firms like ByteDance – to grow its stores and become the world’s most data-rich power.”
The submission also cites a September 2022 ByteDance investor report that claims the company adjusted its algorithms away from purely “commercial logic, strengthened the social value orientation of platform content, and ultimately strengthened control over content”.
Analysts working with Garnaut also describe in the submission how a limited analysis of TikTok content revealed that the app, and Twitter, featured higher proportions of pro-CCP content when compared with Instagram and YouTube.
“Our experiment does not enable us to determine whether this result stems from internal TikTok content moderation, algorithm manipulation, or a higher volume of pro-CCP content creators active on the platform,” it was claimed in the submission.
“But our findings do support a conclusion that when searching contentious topics related to China and, separately, to U.S. elections, the average TikTok (and Twitter) user is more likely to be exposed to pro-CCP content and misinformation in search results than the average Instagram and YouTube user.”
The findings which are set out in the submission may have significant implications for young users who increasingly use TikTok as a search engine to learn about political issues.
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