Is TikTok Really a National Security Threat?

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S1: Washington Post technology reporter Drew Harwell is spending a lot of his time these days working on stories about Tick-Tock, a massively popular app that’s experiencing the kind of growth right now that Facebook and Instagram did back in their heydays.

S2: So, Drew, are you on Tic-Tac? Do you have a tick tock account?

S3: I do. I’m not I’m not a creator, I’m just a weird lurker. My editor is also kind of obsessed with it. And you haven’t posted any videos? No, I haven’t posted anything. I feel a lot of pressure because everything that goes on there is really funny and smart and clever. And I’m none of those things.

S4: My favorite tick tock video that I’ve seen so far is a bunch of quick shots of a guy throwing slices of cheese at the windows of cars sitting next to him at stoplights, and each time a cheese slice sticks to a window. The music is synched so that a huge beat drops. It’s hypnotic. Yeah. When I look at it, it’s it’s there’s always music and everything. And there’s a lot of pranks, a lot of sort of the quick one liners is a lot of fun, funny visual stuff. And it’s all young people. Is that is the core user that the teen, the very young person, the under-25.

S3: Yeah, it’s almost entirely young people that’s changing a little bit. But like the high schoolers who would never dream of going on Facebook, they’re all on Tick-Tock. And it is sort of the capital of of their comedy today.

S4: So far, this sounds like your pretty standard social media story. Teens flock to some new app where they post wacky videos. Adults scramble to figure out why this is the hot new app. Meanwhile, celebrities and brands scramble to figure out how to use the app to connect with the teens and market things to them. Will Smith. Reese Witherspoon, the NFL. These entities all have a presence on Tick-Tock.

S1: But here’s where it gets weird. Last month, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer and Republican Senator Tom Cotton signed a joint letter to the U.S. director of National Intelligence. They asked about security risks around Tick-Tock and wondered if Tick-Tock is, quote, a potential counterintelligence threat.

S5: We cannot ignore it seems crazy, right? And that’s I think Washington is just starting to explore. When you look at Tick-Tock, it’s really easy to just see the sort of fun videos. But it’s also this incredibly instrumental communication platform for kids and young people.

S4: The U.S. government has had its issues with Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat. And some of those issues have touched very directly on politics and elections and national security. But those social media companies are all American and Tick-Tock is not.

S1: Its parent company is Chinese, which has got lawmakers asking a lot of questions lately.

S6: Thank you all for being here. Thank you.

S1: Earlier this month, Republican Senator Josh HAWLEY convened a hearing about tech companies with ties to China.

S6: I’d also like to highlight two empty chairs today, which I say for two invited witnesses who apparently don’t share your commitment to discussing this issues. One shares for Tick-Tock.

S1: He drew on some of the reporting that Drew has done for the post and how he said this about Tick-Tock.

S6: A company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party knows where your children are, knows what they look like with their voices, sound like what they’re watching and what they share with each other.

S1: Holly makes this sound pretty scary. What happens when the big social media platform, the one everybody’s on, is based in China? Does it raise different concerns about security or data privacy or censorship or propaganda, or is this just fearmongering about a geopolitical rival? Today, we talked to Drew Harwell, one of the few reporters who’s spoken to workers inside Tick-Tock. We’ll explore the excitement and the anxiety around this blockbuster app and figure out what happens when social media is maybe socialist. I’m Seth Stevenson subbing in for Lizzie O’Leary. And this is what next TBD, a show about technology, power and how the future will be determined. Stay with us.

S2: Tick tock. This app that’s got all of American Teen Disenthrall is owned by a Chinese company called BYCK Dance. According to Bloomberg News, BYT Dance is the most valuable privately backed startup in the world with 75 billion dollars. It makes a Chinese version of Tick-Tock called Dogen and a couple of other apps that are available in China and America. Drew was able to get a peek inside the bike dance empire to see how it operates and figure out how independent its American arms are. So in your reporting for The Washington Post, you you spoke to some people who’ve worked at Tick-Tock. What kinds of people did you talk to?

S5: So we wanted to talk to as many kind of tick tock bite dance people as possible. So we sort of cast a wide net and we ended up talking to a ton of former content moderators at both Tick-Tock and Biosensors, other really popular American app, which is called Top Buzz, which is sort of a news aggregation app.

S7: So these were people who they would get the reports of content that was maybe flagged for something being wrong in it. It’s a job that you’ll see at Facebook and all the other places. I mean, they give the rubber stamp of approval or disapproval to pieces of content on the app. We also talked to a couple other people who were above them in the ranks who were at the manager level in both the California and New York offices of BYT Dance. And they had sort of seen from the inside that the office was run a little differently than they expected, that the Beijing based executive teams and management teams were very they had a lot of control and exerted a lot of influence over what content was allowed on the app and what content that American users could see.

S2: So it seems like would it would put some of these to talk employees in slightly uncomfortable position where you’re you’re balancing the demands of your U.S. customers. What these what these teams want the app to be. Plus, these Chinese owners, what did they say about how they balance those demands?

S7: There was a lot of content that was just obviously stuff we don’t want no matter where it’s coming from. Right. So it’s it’s the typical sort of violence, sex, drugs, the stuff that any platform would would take off. And so that was not hard for them to make the decision on. But when it came time to deal with stuff that would have been mostly acceptable in the U.S. but was not deemed okay and China, stuff like political criticism, stuff like social taboos or even stuff like heavy kissing, vaping, oversexualized like dances and that kind of thing, in their words, they would see that piece of content coming over and they would feel like, well, this is OK. You know, this is the stuff you can see on YouTube and Facebook. Right now it’s it’s it’s not breaking any like obvious rules about violence or sex. And so they would give it the rubber stamp of approval and then they would kind of find out later on that they had been overruled by a moderation team that was based in Beijing that got the final say on what would be allowed. They were expecting that there would be kind of a stricter set of rules for content on the version of Tick-Tock that’s to use in China, which is called Dorien. But they were expecting kind of a different set of rules in the US. And so they were really surprised and kind of dismayed at the fact that they were quietly muting people and taking videos off the platform that they felt like were acceptable should have been like something that we would tolerate in a free speech country.

S8: A Tick-Tock executive has issued a statement saying that decisions about which videos to promote or remove are not directed by the Chinese government. People have tried to test whether censorship of political criticism is happening on Tick-Tock, for instance, by posting content about the Hong Kong protests and waiting to see if it gets deleted by the app. But it’s been hard to find any conclusive proof.

S5: There were several researchers who were saying this does not seem right. When you search for all of these prominent Hong Kong protest hashtags on Instagram or Twitter or other sites, you see street battles and police misconduct and signs and protests, all of these things. Well, when you would search for the same thing on Tick-Tock, you would get a much shinier and happier sort of vision of Hong Kong. But it’s really hard to prove censorship in a way, because it’s what you’re not seeing. Right. And it’s not just that they’re deleting videos, but they also have the power to make a video, what they call visible the self. So you can post a video and you you know, it’s online. You see that it’s still okay, but nobody’s watching it. And so some of the researchers were saying, like, this is a really subtle way that they could prevent these things from taking off if they don’t want them.

S2: But it’s not just the companies themselves that might be trying to control what goes on social media. Chinese politicians have also played very assertive roles in what happens with China’s Internet companies.

S9: We have seen this play out with a lot of companies. Including by dance, including the owner of Tick-Tock, where BYT Dance ended up shutting down an entire app that was sort of built around inside jokes because the Chinese government felt that a lot of the content on there was subversive. And the head of bi dances, this Chinese billionaire, effectively kind of the Zuckerberg of China and Jiang Zemin, he came out with this really self-effacing apology saying, I’m so sorry we did that. You know, we’re really going to work hard to make sure that the Communist Party’s views are broadcast to strength for people in the West. It was concerning because it showed the extent with which that the Chinese government had held sway over over companies who want to survive in China. And so that was kind of an instrumental chapter in the bite dance legacy.

S10: And. Some people thought, hey, what what happens if Tick-Tock goes that way to.

S8: This is the question that U.S. lawmakers are trying to answer. What happens if this app that’s wildly popular in America is indeed under the sway of the Chinese government? The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or SIMEUS, is a government body made up of representatives from various federal agencies. Lately, they’ve been more aggressive about investigating Chinese ownership of apps like Tick-Tock that operate in the U.S.. Back in May, under pressure from CFIUS about data privacy, a Chinese company agreed to divest its interest in the gay dating app Grinder. And earlier this month, it was reported that they’d launched an investigation into the U.S. activities of BYT Dance, which has no doubt gotten tic-tacs attention.

S9: Because Citius is a powerful group they get to review. Any time a foreign business or foreign investor invests in a U.S. company, they can review deals that were already signed, sealed and delivered. They can squash deals. They can force a company to sell different parts of themselves to satisfy this government mandate. They have not traditionally been that active, but in the last couple of years there have been these huge sort of surprise movements by syphillis in which the U.S. government said we’re going to review this deal because we feel like it could potentially pose a national security threat. And so with Grinder, nobody was expecting syphillis to ask questions about a gay dating app. And yet they came sort of had a nowhere and said that this is really important. This is data on people’s health and relationships that could be used against people in a way that could compromise national security. And so they wielded a really heavy hand in the grinder deal and and could do so again with Tick-Tock. And so they’re one of these like government panels that you often never hear about. But when they come in to the scene, it’s it has the potential to be explosive.

S2: Let’s sort of get into the actual security concerns here. So Senator Josh Hallie’s his quote was a company compromised by the Chinese Communist Party. Knows where your children are, knows what they look like, what their voices sound like, what they’re watching and what they share with each other. I mean, do we need to be concerned that the Chinese Communist Party knows what what our teens are doing is like? What is the real concern there?

S7: I think Josh Hawley’s take on that is a little strong. I mean, I think the Chinese government could know that thing in the same way that a lot of that information is made public by the users in the first place. But there are lots of things we don’t really know from a counterintelligence standpoint as to how serious of a threat do they think this is. You know, I think it’s really easy to sort of laugh it off because we just you know, it feels like what are people really putting out there that is so devastating that it could be a counterintelligence threat. And yet we’ve seen it play out with a lot of these tech companies. People put a lot of information on social media. And Tick-Tock is sort of built around these really intimate moments that people can make video of. That can include their location, include video from inside private businesses, from inside police stations and military bases. So there is a worry that that information in the wrong hands could be weaponized.

S2: Aside from these concerns that the Chinese government is going to get its hands on all our data or, you know, that it’s going to use to talk to hack into our phones and look through our iPhone cameras or something. I think the other big category of concern is about censorship and propaganda, that the Chinese government is going to influence what you don’t see on Tick-Tock because it’s suppressed. Maybe that’s posts about, you know, Hong Kong demonstrations and what you do see. Maybe it propagates some sort of subtle, you know, Chinese propaganda. Have we seen any evidence of either of those things, censorship or propaganda going on so far on Tick-Tock?

S9: There’s a really kind of interesting way that the Tick-Tock version in China called Dorien has developed where it’s not just for entertainment, but it’s it’s a huge source of news for a lot of people in China. You know, there’s huge presence for sort of local police, state sponsored media and propaganda that plays out on dohe. And there’s a ton of sort of celebratory, triumphant stuff around Xi Jinping and in that the the Chinese state. And so from researchers we talked to in Hong Kong and China, in the U.S., I mean, there’s is this feeling that what if what happens to the Chinese, Tick-Tock, happens to the U.S., Tick-Tock, what if it becomes this place where these ideas that align with the Chinese government are the things that you just end up stumbling upon while you’re watching videos on your way to work? Is there sort of a subtle way that they could get people feeling better about China or worse about the Hong Kong protest or better or worse, about one political candidate over the other? Could that happen in a way that nobody would really even pick up on?

S2: Some of this can feel a little like fear mongering, where you say China and suddenly everything sound scarier. U.S. local police and politicians often have Instagram accounts where they push their own narratives. It’s not surprising that Chinese police and politicians would do the same. And of course, the spread of propaganda and disinformation on Facebook is now legendary. But there’s a larger question here about soft power as it gets expressed through a country’s social media for a long time. It seems a lot more straightforward where soft power meant, you know, Hollywood movies in U.S. culture in general, kind of propagating around the world and maybe suddenly spreading U.S. ideas and and pro-democracy ideas. Now, it’s much more complicated with these apps than it was when you just kind of made a piece of content and then tried to put it in front of people. It’s a little more complex.

S9: Yeah, the new soft power is the app. The new star power is social media, right? Like if you can make it so it seems like a hundred thousand people are all tweeting about Hong Kong protesters being thugs. Then you can potentially convince people that that is a view that a hundred thousand real people have and maybe it’s a view that they should have, too.

S2: I wonder how much of this sudden scrutiny and anxiety around Tick-Tock is also just plain economic envy. You know, with a similar deal in the 1980s, we were scared the Japanese companies were going to take over and eliminate all the American companies. And now suddenly China has this hugely successful social media app and we’re very used to Silicon Valley dominating this space. And maybe it it won’t forever. You know, Mark Zuckerberg gave this speech where he really aggressively talked about how how bad Tick-Tock wasn’t in terms of these kind of China related fears. But it’s been reported that he tried to buy it before he made that speech. So how much of this is just concern that they’re they’re winning the economic war, the war for eyeballs?

S9: Yeah, I think that’s a totally unavoidable part of the conversation. There is a huge amount of competitive envy in Silicon Valley over how Tick-Tock has done and also this feeling of being unnerved by the fact that they could be supplanted by this huge rising Chinese industry of tech and A.I. in social media. So people are seeing Mark Zuckerberg say that and they’re saying, oh, well, you’re compromised like you. You don’t really believe that. You’re just looking at Facebook bottom line and using these red scare terms to knock down a competitor for longtime Silicon Valley would not criticize China because they wanted to do business in China. China’s the second the world’s second largest economy. But now we are seeing the companies be a little more vocal in criticizing Chinese disinformation campaigns. Chinese intellectual property theft and Chinese sort of social media rules that make it really hard for anybody but these this hand-selected group of mostly Chinese based companies to prosper. These are business decisions. At the end of the day, it’s kind of amazing.

S2: We’re talking about this like cutthroat global economic rivalry and these geopolitical security concerns. And then, you know, I just opened Tick-Tock up on my phone and it’s like it’s Reese Witherspoon dancing with her son. It’s like it’s like a kid, you know, making his friends sit on a pizza without realizing it. It’s just kind of this amazing collision. It’s like very serious things. And he’s incredibly unserious things.

S9: Yeah, totally. And I think, like, young people are probably going to hear this and feel like, oh, my God, you’re making like so much out of nothing like this is the app. We watch people like throw pies in each other’s face and do beer dances on the table. But I also think it’s like a good sign that we’re taking these platforms seriously. These are not just toys. These are the main ways people communicate and get information in the world today.

S11: Tick-Tock can be funny videos and can be a counterintelligence threat all on the same token.

S12: Drew Harwell, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thanks for having me. Drew Harwell is a reporter for The Washington Post. OK. That’s the show. What next? TBD is produced by even Brooks. I’m Seth Stevenson. TBD is part of the larger what next family. Mary Harris will be talking impeachment later today. So keep an eye out for that episode in your feed. TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. We’re off next week over Thanksgiving, but Lizzie will be back December 6th with a new episode. She’ll talk to them.