TikTok’s ties to Chinese propaganda machine revealed

Micaela Burrow, DCNF

Three hundred employees at the parent company of ubiquitous social media app TikTok list Chinese state media outlets in their employment histories, a Forbes investigation of public LinkedIn profile information revealed Thursday.

The investigation may reveal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) ties to ByteDance, a Chinese technology company that operates several popular social media apps, through Chinese media organizations that generate CCP propaganda, according to Forbes. The profiles include 23 current directors of ByteDance responsible for “content partnerships, public affairs, corporate social responsibility and media cooperation,” and 15 who may still hold employment status with certain Chinese state-run media outlets, though it’s possible that the LinkedIn profiles were not updated after a change of job status.

In addition, profiles of 50 former Chinese state media employees show they hold various positions at TikTok, a popular video creation and sharing platform, including a “content strategy manager” who previously served as chief correspondent for China’s Xinhua News, Forbes found.

“The Chinese government is probably trying to poke around to figure out—how can they use the information they’re getting from watching TikTok to better tailor their propaganda for a Western audience?’ James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Forbes.

The Trump administration designated nine Chinese media outlets as functionaries of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020. Of these, ByteDance employees work or have worked for Xinhua News Agency, China Global Television Network, China Radio International, China Central Television, China News Service, the People’s Daily and the Global Times, Forbes found.

The CCP’s Propaganda Department launched China Daily and runs the External Propaganda Group, an office in charge of promoting China’s narrative of events to the world, according to the Center for European Policy Analysis. The CCP spent$64 million on propaganda directed at the U.S. in 2021.

ByteDance makes “hiring decisions based purely on an individual’s professional capability to do the job,” Jennifer Banks, a spokesperson for the company, told Forbes. “For our China-market businesses, that includes people who have previously worked in government or state media positions in China.”

ByteDance also does not allow employees to hold concurrent positions, Banks added.

In a statement, ByteDance told the Daily Caller News Foundation the Forbes report is “inaccurate” and “draws from outdated online profiles of people who never worked for state media, no longer work for our company, or work on China businesses only.”

While other social media sites, including Facebook and Twitter, flag state-affiliated media organizations, TikTok’s policy only applies to Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian media in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war. None of the largest Chinese media entities on TikTok receive labels indicating their association with the CCP, according to Forbes.

TikTok has faced increasing scrutiny from regulators and U.S. government officials for its ties to the CCP, resulting in calls for banning the app. Chinese employees at ByteDance reportedly enjoy full access to data from U.S. devices that U.S.-based staff do not, a June BuzzFeed investigation found.

ByteDance defended its privacy initiatives in a letter to U.S. congressmembers after the BuzzFeed investigation sparked concern among lawmakers.

ByteDance’s other apps, including Douyin and Toutiao, cater to Chinese audiences and comply strictly with CCP censorship regulations, according to Forbes.

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