With less than 100 days for the presidential elections, a group of seven top Republican senators has expressed concern over the Chinese social media app TikTok and its potential use by China to influence the polls.
The senators — in a letter to Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf — said that the Trump administration has rightly taken steps to maintain the security and integrity of the US elections.
“We write to raise concerns about TikTok, the Chinese social-media service, which could enable the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to engage in influence operations against the United States, including operations designed to interfere with our elections,” senators Thom Tillis, Tom Cotton, Kevin Cramer, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott said on Wednesday.
As President Donald Trump stated in the executive order in September 2018, “the proliferation of digital devices and internet-based communications has created significant vulnerabilities and magnified the scope and intensity of the threat of foreign interference”.
“The administration has acted decisively on this threat by forcing media outlets controlled by hostile state actors like Russia and China to register as foreign agents, imposing sanctions on foreign officials who attempted to meddle in the American elections and issuing repeated warnings about efforts by hostile foreign powers to interfere in upcoming elections,” they wrote.
Noting that TikTok has become a popular forum for Americans, particularly younger Americans to engage in political conversations, the senators wrote that they are greatly concerned that the CCP could use its control over TikTok to distort or manipulate these conversations to sow discord among Americans and to achieve its preferred political outcomes.
TikTok is owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, and the majority of the company’s engineering and development resources are based in China. ByteDance regularly modifies TikTok content to satisfy the CCP censorship rules, they said.
In 2019, the Washington Post reported that ByteDance employees based in China set TikTok’s content standards and issued commands to remove TikTok content they deemed “subversive or controversial”.
In November 2019, TikTok locked the account of an American teenager who posted a video critical of the CCP’s horrific crimes against the Uighur people in China.
TikTok only reversed this act of censorship and unlocked the young woman’s account after a public outcry, they said.
Alleging that the CCP devotes significant resources to conduct information operations overseas, they said that Beijing exploits the openness of Western democracies and social-media platforms to propagate the party’s preferred narratives.
The CCP conducts these influence operations by coopting traditional media outlets, spending tens of millions of dollars to purchase space in major US newspapers for propaganda by state-owned outlets like China Daily, and working to ensure Chinese state television channels like CGTN dominate Chinese-language media overseas, they alleged.
“The CCP also manipulates overseas political discussions on Chinese-owned social media platforms like WeChat. Chinese government officials increasingly use Western social-media companies, including those banned in China, to flood global social media with propaganda and misinformation,” the Senators added.
Seeking re-election for his second consecutive term, Trump is pitted against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in November 3 presidential elections. Most of the opinion polls shows that Biden is several points ahead of Trump.