China Dividing Americans Via TikTok Algorithm, FBI Says

Photo from Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

China Dividing Americans Via TikTok Algorithm, FBI Says

By Movieguide® Contributor

In a congressional hearing last week, FBI Director Christopher Wray told senators that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can influence millions of Americans through TikTok.

Wray explained that through amassing information and implementing advanced technology, the Chinese government can “conduct targeting for espionage [and] IP theft” among other concerns the FBI has sounded alarms on. 

The 2017 Chinese Equifax hack allowed the CCP to illegally obtain the Personal Identifiable Information of nearly half the population of the United States. This information provided the Chinese government with the means to meddle in U.S. affairs.

“Data is the coin of the realm, those who have the best information have the power,” Wray explained.

Now TikTok is providing a means for China to collect information. Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok is ultimately controlled by the Chinese government as the split between the private and public sectors is “nonexistent in the way that [the] CCP operates,” Wray explained.

“It’s the control of the data to conduct all sorts of big operations. It’s the control of the recommendation algorithm, which allows them to conduct influence operations. It’s the control of the software, which allows them to then have access to millions of devices,” Wray said.

“You put all those three things together, and again, come back to the starting point, which is, this is a tool that is ultimately within the control of the Chinese government and it to me screams out with national security concerns.”

Following a line of questioning from Sen. Marco Rubio, Wray disclosed that China can control the narratives users see and divide Americans against each other by controlling data. This could be done without any “outward signs of it happening.”

Rubio later noted the differences in what Chinese users see on TikTok compared to what U.S. users see. “For example, in the U.S. kids are being encouraged to choke themselves out, we’ve had kids die. In China, they’re encouraged to focus on math and science and building the country.”

Movieguide® has previously reported on TikTok’s potential security risks:

TikTok is facing bipartisan calls for the Chinese-owned app to be separated from its parent company ByteDance due to national security concerns. 

In a letter to the Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS), senators Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked the committee to “swiftly conclude its investigation and impose strict structural restrictions between TikTok’s American operations and its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, including potentially separating the companies,” something CFIUS has the power to do.

Their concern stems from the possibility of China using TikTok to “collect data on tens of millions of American users and attempt to influence our public discourse.” 

Movieguide® has previously reported on other legislators’ efforts to ban TikTok in the United States. 

Senator Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has previously called TikTok a “Trojan Horse for the Chinese Communist Party” and “a major security risk to the United States.”

While the video app has been banned on government devices since December 2022, lawmakers are concerned about the tens of millions of active users in the United States. 

“TikTok is clearly, inextricably dependent on ByteDance for its operations, and therefore beholden to the government of China,” they wrote in their letter. 

The Hollywood Reporter adds that the letter asks “CFIUS to impose ‘structural separations’ on ByteDance’s ability to access ‘Americans’ personal data; make decisions about content moderation; control its algorithmic recommendation systems; and oversee its U.S. operations.’”

“At a minimum, CFIUS should ensure that executive decision making about the platform is based in the United States and fully free from coercive influence from Beijing,” the letter reads. 

It adds, “It must also ensure that decisions about, and access to, all personal data, algorithms, and content moderation relating to American users is out of the reach or influence of the Chinese government.”

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said, “The bottom line is China has been quite clear that they are trying to mold and put forward the use and norms around technologies that privilege their interests.” 

“There’s a reason we need to be very concerned,” she added.

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