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China conducted ‘influence operations’ through TikTok before US midterms, according to FBI director

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The Chinese government was pushing “influence operations” on TikTok before the November midterm elections, according to FBI Director Chris Wray.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the Treasury Department to look into the national security implications of TikTok’s data storage practices. According to Chinese law, the Chinese government can access any and all information that flows through Chinese servers without giving notice to service providers, companies, or end users.

“The threat posed through facial recognition, location data, and A.I. based image scanning techniques could allow the Chinese government to obtain sensitive information,” Rubio said in a statement. “In the wrong hands, this information poses a risk, not only to the individual involved but to American national security.”

According to a recent report by Forbes magazine, the Chinese government was pushing videos negatively targeting specific politicians (among them Rubio) before the 2022 midterm elections without disclosing that the videos were produced by a state-controlled government. 

The U.S. has been trying to negotiate a contract with TikTok to resolve national security concerns without requiring its China-based owner, ByteDance, to sell the hugely popular app, the New York Times reported back in September. TikTok has about 135 million users in the United States.

Related: Is TikTok spying on you and sending your information to China?

Influence videos linked to Chinese media

CCTV tower Tiktok midterms
The CCTV tower in Beijing, China. (Photo by Scott Meltzer/Wikimedia Commons)

TikTok does not label its social media videos as coming from the Chinese government; therefore, American users don’t know where these videos come from, according to Forbes.

For example, the account NewsTokss features coverage of U.S. national and international news. The profile bio for NewsTokss lists this information: “Material distributed by MediaLinks TV LLC on behalf of CCTV. More info at DOJ, D.C.”

During a two-month period between May and July, Newstokss videos were watched 8.3 million times, but only 57,000 people read the bio. And even if they did, they would have to dive deeper to learn that CCTV stands for China Central TV; the DOJ, D.C.  points to the foreign agent designation.

MediaLinks TV “criticized some candidates (mostly Republicans) and favored others (mostly Democrats),” Forbes wrote in its report.

In July, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, tried to downplay TikTok’s influence on American audiences during an interview on CNN. Asked whether the Chinese government could “influence Americans’ commercial, cultural, or political behavior” through the app, Beckerman responded, “Yeah, I just don’t see that.” 

And yet, on the same day, NewTokss posted two videos of police killing an unarmed black man and four videos of mass shootings, titling them “A Uniquely American Plague.”

FBI Director Wray speaking on Friday at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy said that China’s government holds the key to TikTok’s recommendation algorithms. 

This “allows [China’s government] to manipulate content, and if they want to, to use it for influence operations,” Wray said. He noted that the Chinese government also maintains the ability to collect user data.

“All of these things are in the hands of a government that doesn’t share our values, and that has a mission that’s very much at odds with what’s in the best interests of the United States. That should concern us,” he added.

Related: Here’s why the Pentagon says you should delete TikTok 

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem Tiktok midterms
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. (Photo by Matt Johnson)

The U.S. military and government workers are already banned from using TikTok on their government-issued phones.

In November, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem issued an executive order banning state agencies from using TikTok. 

“It’s off our networks. It’s blocked off of our servers. Any state employee, anybody who contracts with the state of South Dakota, anybody who uses any of our systems no longer will be able to download or utilize this app because of the national security threat that it is,” Noem said in an interview on Fox News.

Noem added, “It’s so much worse. And they’re our enemy. They hate us. This is why it’s so important that other elected officials take action as well.”

Feature Image: FBI Director Christopher Wray attending a conference at Fordham University in 2019. (FBI)

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Steve Balestrieri