TikTok owner ByteDance promoted pro-China content on news aggregator app
TikTok parent company ByteDance has been involved in the promotion of pro-China messaging through one of its other apps.
The company allegedly used its English-language news app TopBuzz to promote pro-China messaging to Americans, according to Buzzfeed News. These details arise as the app receives attention from lawmakers over its connections to China and the Chinese Communist Party.
Four former employees of ByteDance said that the company ordered them to place specific pieces of pro-China messaging into the news app, including the promotion and “pinning” of the content to the top of the app. This included subtler content such as items about pandas or investors talking about moving their companies to China. The content was “soft” pro-China content rather than explicit political messaging.
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While the messaging may seem innocent at first glance, this is the first time ByteDance employees have confirmed that they attempted to promote pro-China content to users in the United States. It also provides insight into the company’s attempts to manage its endeavors to become a dominant player in tech-based entertainment while also managing the Chinese government’s demands on the company.
Fifteen former employees noted that the company previously had to censor content critical of the Chinese government while operating in China. This included removing coverage of the Hong Kong protests, overtly LGBTQ content, and posts referencing Chinese President Xi Jinping and Winnie the Pooh.
TopBuzz was an English version of the company’s Chinese news aggregator, Toutiao. Launched in 2015, the app gained more than 40 million users at the peak of its existence. The aggregator became a notable driver of news traffic up until 2020, when it shut down as regulators began to investigate ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly over national security risks.
“The claim that TopBuzz — which was discontinued years ago — pinned pro-Chinese government content to the top of the app or worked to promote it is false and ridiculous,” a ByteDance spokesperson told Buzzfeed. “TopBuzz had over two dozen top-tier U.S. and U.K. media publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, which clearly did not find anything of concern when performing due diligence.”
Lawmakers in Congress have been scrutinizing TikTok and ByteDance more and more over the company’s China connections after a Buzzfeed News report revealed that China-based employees at ByteDance were able to access user data from the U.S. Nine Republican senators sent a letter to TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew on June 28, requesting answers regarding its relationship with China.
Chew confirmed in his response that China-based employees could access U.S. data through a preset number of security precautions. The TikTok CEO also stated that all U.S. user data are being transferred to servers run by the U.S. cloud hosting service Oracle, a change announced on the same day as the Buzzfeed report. He also said that the Chinese Communist Party had never asked for U.S. user data and that TikTok has never provided said data to the CCP, nor would it do so if the party asked for it.
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Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) requested on July 6 that the Federal Trade Commission investigate TikTok’s data security practices. Reps. James Comer (R-KY) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) also sent a letter on July 14 requesting answers from Chew about the company’s security practices.