I am sure we all remember the 2016 election, and how Russian operatives used The Facebook platform to sway the results of the presidential election. Many in the Computer Science and Cyber Security Industry knew it was coming, and on many occasions attempted to warn top United States officials on the matter. These officials chose to ignore the warnings. Fast forward to 2017, post Trump’s inauguration The CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerburg is sitting in front of a US lawmakers following a FTC investigation into Facebook. Called before Congress for collecting data on US Citizens, and supporting false news on his site. Fast forward again to 2020, and here we are believing we are safe and sound from the evils of Facebook, or that our politicians have taken necessary steps to prevent it from happening again. You would be absolutely wrong (that is a different topic for a different day) and I have more bad news, another enemy looms on the horizon. That enemy would be the Chinese made social network app, “TikTok”.
A bit of backstory on TikTok:
TikTok was founded in 2016 by Chinese Software Company ByteDance. Founded by Zhang Yiming, ByteDance’s first app released in September 2016 as, “Douyin”. However, ByteDance did not make it to The United States until Douyin merged with musical.ly on August 2nd, 2018, at which point Douyin became know to the outside world as TikTok. As for Douyin it, remained the same in China and was kept on a separate server from TikTok, so that ByteDance remained in compliance with Chinese Censorship Restrictions. Since their international start back in 2018 TikTok has skyrocketed to the second most downloaded app in The Apple App Store.
Why is this an issue?
This is a huge issue considering that TikTok has already come under fire from multiple countries for things ranging from scanning a user’s phone to know everything about them, or removing video that showed disabled or “non-appealing” kids in an “anti-bullying” campaign, and even to tracking the movement of foreign countries troops (including The United States). TikTok faces hundred of lawsuits from multiple different countries regarding its blatant invasion of privacy. As if international mass surveillance was not enough, TikTok is already seeing a massive trend in far right wing content flooding its pages. Many of these videos like the Facebook posts and ads, that came before it are filled with false statistics and lies. These lies and false news are meant to cause argument and bitter debate, in an effort to further divide Americans along political lines. Another major problem is TikTok uses AI (Artificial Intelligence) and facial recognition to track and follow its users to gain valuable information on people that can be used for data sales, facial recognition augmentation, as well as playing to a user’s beliefs. This is done by if a teen walks into their room to film a TikTok the software will also look for anything political, or media that aligns with a certain political group (i.e. flags, posters, signs, hats, other clothing articles, etc.). TikTok, may also use a phone’s microphone to record a user or a user’s parents/friends talking about politics, to try and calculate where the user may stand on political subjects. This can then be used to feed the user TikTok content that either, justifies their beliefs and fuels it or, content that will bring anger or resentment towards their political “rival’s” view/platform.
What is the danger to 2020?
The danger comes from the playing to a user’s beliefs and being highly selective in what airs on their app and what does not air. Going back to the 2016 elections, Russian Operatives used Facebook to push false media that supported or assisted the Trump Campaign in any way possible. While hurting liberal or democrat platforms in the process. This proved to be an immensely effective strategy and caught the eye of both the US media and politicians after the 2016 election cycle, prompting the FTC investigations. Facebook was almost the perfect weapon for Russia, a large platform, easy to manipulate, would do anything for money, and highly effective. The reason it was not perfect however was due to Facebook not being completely within Russia’s control. As many know Facebook is an American based company and can control who and what posts to their platform. They tend to lean on freedom of speech and try to not get involved in political debate. Unless the content is violent or obviously false, plus there are few regulations or censorship restrictions placed on Facebook by the US. TikTok however is perfect for Chinese and Russian Operatives, as China owns the software and has full access to any and all data given to TikTok (which is everything on the device that it is installed on). Since China has full access to the app, they can censor and push content as they choose to do so.
What would Chinese/Russian interference look like?
I am glad you asked! Hypothetically Russia and/or China could push Conservative content that supports Trump by adding in likes leading to pro-Trump content getting the most views (they can assign any value of likes that they wish as they control the app). Next they deal with the liberal/anti-Trump content, as in China or Russia can either place comments from made up user accounts on a touchy subject, or they can flat out delete the content (which there has been multiple cases of). This is very important, as one of my favorite Netflix series, “Narcos: Mexico”, showed the Mexican Cartels attempted to sway a presidential election in the 1980s using a similar technique. They did so by changing the early poll results to make it appear that their man was winning in a land slide. An organization would do this, because they know that early on in an election if a person sees the politician they plan to vote for is losing in a land slide, they will not bother to come out to vote. This leads to the candidate that false polls show as winning to eventually win as many of their opposition’s supporters would not show up thinking, “why waste my precious time on a loser” fearing the campaign was over. TikTok uses a similar technique too. It has been found that if someone is a Democrat TikTok primarily shows pro-conservative content to that user, in hopes that they feel outnumbered and their cause is already lost before it has begun.
How can I help stop this?
Well of course a good start would be to share this article with anyone who may need to be informed on the dangers of TikTok. Another great way would be to encourage anyone that you may know to be using TikTok, to delete it immediately as it is a huge invasion of user privacy to begin with. As Americans, we should stop using social media as a way to get our news. If we continue using social media to get our news, it will lead to lies and false news, further hurting our democracy more than it already has. Last, if you are feeling really inspired call upon your local media, representatives, and senators to stop using this app immediately and, push politicians to dig a little deeper into TikTok’s connections and past history.
From the author:
Thank you for reading! This is my first article that I have had the guts to actually post and not abandon in the draft section, on Medium! I am sure I have much to learn about this platform! Again thank you for your support!