“Good old TikTok: Chinese spy engine and purveyor of virulent antisemitic lies.” Sen. Josh Hawley

San Francisco High School students enflamed by false report from the NYT (which later offered “nuance”) broadcast worldwide on TikTok #freepalestine that Israel bombed that hospital in Gaza.

by James C. Sherlock

Taylor Lorenz, the estimable young Tech and Online Culture columnist for The Washington Post, has been the author of some of the most important reports on the Hamas-Israel war.

Today, she published with Drew Harwell, a Post reporter covering artificial intelligence and the algorithms changing our lives, “Israel-Gaza war sparks debate over TikTok’s role in setting public opinion.

A pro-Palestinian hashtag, #freepalestine, had … 770 million views over the last 30 days in the United States, TikTok data show.

To longtime TikTok critics like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), that assertion offered further proof that the app, owned by the China-based tech firm ByteDance, is a secretive propaganda engine built to manipulate American teens for Chinese geopolitical goals — in this case, Rubio said, to “downplay … Hamas terrorism.”

The same Post article, attempting balance, reports both the Sen. Hawley quote in the title of this piece and that:

TikTok creators and social media experts say the reality (of reporting on the war) is more nuanced (than critics have asserted).

“Nuanced.” What would we do without “TikTok creators and social media experts”?

Half of TikTok’s U.S. audience is younger than 25. On videos in the United States over the last 30 days, about 59% of viewers for #standwithpalestine and #freepalestine videos were between the ages of 18 to 24, compared to 42% of #standwithisrael.

Our national security and federal communications apparatus have had reasons to have been concerned about TikTok well before this war.  

The FBI Director testified to Congress in March of this year that “the Bureau has national security concerns with TikTok.”

A Federal Communications Commissioner reports that TikTok is “owned by Beijing-based ByteDance—an organization that is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party and required by Chinese law to comply with the regime’s surveillance demands.”

Virginia has direct obligations here.

The TikTok threat. In a letter to the Department of Justice on Dec. 2, 2022, Commissioner Carr provided a great deal of additional disturbing information.  A small sample:

FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that the Bureau has national security concerns with TikTok, including “the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm . . . for influence operations . . . or to control software on millions of devices which gives the opportunity to potentially . . . compromise personal devices.”

TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance—an organization that is beholden to the Chinese Communist Party and required by Chinese law to comply with the regime’s surveillance demands.

Through leaked audio recordings, a BuzzFeed News report revealed that ByteDance officials in Beijing have repeatedly accessed the sensitive data that TikTok has collected from Americans after those U.S. users downloaded the app through Apple’s and Google’s app stores.

a significant percentage of the millions of connected devices recently purchased with federal E-Rate and Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) discounts may not be Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA)-compliant.

Another Chinese-owned app, WeChat, a unit of Tencent and also available from popular app stores, presents the same threat.

Virginia has at least four obligations here:

  1. ensure that neither TikTok nor WeChat apps are installed and that those sites are not accessed by browser on any state or local government computers;
  2. ensure, in compliance with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), that those same safeguards are applied to computers acquired through the federal E-Rate and Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) programs;
  3. Under CIPA, the safety policy adopted by school districts must also address access by minors to inappropriate matter on the Internet; the safety and security of minors when using electronic mail, chat rooms and other forms of direct electronic communications; … unauthorized disclosure, use, and dissemination of personal information regarding minors; and measures restricting minors’ access to materials harmful to them. Ensure that those safety policies ban access to TikTok and WeChat;
  4. Require school divisions to notify parents of the warning about TikTok by the FBI Director.

A BR reader, a man of the left, commented a while ago that his daughters and their friends got their news from TikTok. He was proud of that. He wrote that his daughter’s generation would drive out all of the bad things older generations espouse.

He cannot be reassured by the Reuters report in March that TikTok Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew told the House of Representatives, “I don’t think that spying is the right way to describe it.” Nuanced.

I recommend that our commenter reconsider his position on TikTok.

But Virginia must act.

Or we can wait until China invades Taiwan, which the President has promised to defend, to see what our young people learn about that on TikTok.

As a close friend of mine with direct knowledge of the issues facing Virginia’s Boards of Visitors and College presidents wrote to me yesterday:

When a 25 year-old with a $800 camera has more daily viewers than Fox News, the chances of nuanced contemplation preceding speech by his 19 year old viewers are slim.