Cybersecurity

Republicans raise concerns TikTok could be used by Chinese government interfere in elections

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A group of Republican senators led by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) on Tuesday raised concerns that popular social media app TikTok could be used by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to spread disinformation around U.S. elections.

The lawmakers – who also included Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) – wrote to the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence raising concerns that the app could be used by China to interfere in American elections. 

“TikTok has become a popular forum for Americans—particularly younger Americans—to engage in political conversations,” Cotton and his colleagues wrote. “I’m 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 Chinese company ByteDance, which is subject to Chinese intelligence laws, an issue that has increasingly led to questions over the security and privacy of American data stored by the app. The company has taken steps to separate itself from China, including hiring an American CEO and moving the storage of American data to the U.S. 

But the senators still warned that the CCP could use the app for its purposes, noting that TikTok temporarily locked a teen’s account last year after the individual posted a video critical of the CCP’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. 

“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 warned. 

They asked that the agencies respond to questions around whether TikTok could be subject to sanctions if disinformation efforts are found on its platform, and whether the app could serve as a tool for the CCP to interfere in U.S. elections. 

A spokesperson for TikTok told The Hill that “TikTok isn’t the go-to app to follow political news or candidates, but we’re taking cues from the experience of our peers during the last US presidential election and proactively investing to safeguard our app.”

The spokesperson noted that TikTok does not accept political ads, and pointed to the company’s community guidelines, which ban content intended to “deceive or mislead,” with content posted by disinformation campaigns removed from the platform. 

“Our content and moderation policies are led by our US-based team in California and aren’t influenced by any foreign government,” the TikTok spokesperson said. “We invite lawmakers to visit our virtual Transparency Center where they can see firsthand how we moderate and recommend content.”

The letter was sent days after a top intelligence official warned that China, Russia, and Iran were seeking to interfere in American elections, with China using “influence efforts to shape the policy environment” including the presidential race. 

The senators were not alone Tuesday in raising concerns over TikTok. 

Staffers on the presidential campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden were told Tuesday to either delete TikTok from their phones and to not download the app in the future.

A campaign official told The Hill Tuesday that the request was made following guidance from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which according to CNN sent out guidance to its staff earlier this month warning them not to use TikTok due to its potential ties to the Chinese government. The Republican National Committee (RNC) has also advised staff not to use the app on their personal devices, citing security risks. 

The Trump administration has stepped up efforts against TikTok in recent weeks as well, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saying earlier this month that the administration was exploring banning Chinese apps including TikTok due to concerns about data being shared with the CCP.

-Updated at 9:45 p.m. to include input from TikTok. 

Tags China Joe Biden Joni Ernst Kevin Cramer Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Ted Cruz Thom Tillis tiktok Tom Cotton

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