The midterm elections of 2022 were many things—a shocker for Republicans, the possible end of Donald Trump, a win for centrist Democrats. Overlooked is the fact that they were also a big turning point for TikTok, the Chinese social-media platform.
TikTok is not only the most trafficked news app for Americans under 30. It was also a major political force this year. Exhibit A: the Senate race in Pennsylvania, in which both Democrat John Fetterman and his Republican rival, Mehmet Oz, deployed TikTok, with Oz railing against the cost of vegetables in one video, and Fetterman slamming Oz for saying “crudité” in a highly effective response. Other candidates who took to TikTok this cycle include Tim Ryan, who ran for Senate in Ohio, and Val Demmings, who ran for Senate in Florida. (Both are Democrats.) The Democratic National Committee, early this year, launched its own TikTok channel.
Now, there are calls to shut it down. Just yesterday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau has “national-security concerns” about TikTok. Last Friday, the top Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, Brendan Carr, called TikTok “China’s digital fentanyl.” The day before, Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Mike Gallagher, both Republicans, introduced legislation banning the social-media platform, noting that the data of millions of Americans is “effectively controlled” by the Chinese Communist Party. Earlier in the month, Carr also said the U.S. government should ban TikTok.
It’s about time.
Ever since TikTok began expanding into the United States, more than four years ago, we’ve known that it was a disaster waiting to happen. What’s shocking is that it’s taken this long to get serious political attention.
I know all about this. I used to be an investigative reporter in China. In December 2017, I first heard from friends on social media that a Chinese tech unicorn called ByteDance was planning on entering the American market with a new app. It was called TikTok.
Alongside its sibling app, Douyin, which operates only in China, TikTok was poised to sweep up the Gen Z audience in America, with its preference for video snippets of dancing celebrities, DIY projects, cooking demonstrations, skincare routines and other Gen Z’ers singing and dancing in their parents’ kitchens. As the fastest growing social media app ever, it rankled American competitors Facebook and YouTube, which were banned in China.
By October 2018, ByteDance was the world’s most valuable startup, with a valuation of $75 billion.
Four years later, ByteDance is worth $300 billion. TikTok is expected to reach 1.8 billion users globally by the end of the year. And a quarter of American adults under 30 get their news from the social-media app.
There's a good reason for this success. TikTok has developed one of the most powerful machine-learning algorithms ever—one that is able to reveal people’s unknown desires to themselves.
Every day, every hour, every waking minute, TikTok is hoovering up seemingly infinite bits of information about its users—their tastes, hobbies, political views, sexual preferences, their facial structure, the sound of their voice. Ostensibly, all this is meant to provide a better product. It should also be noted that this information can be used for spying, influencing millions of users—even waging war. Every time we swipe for the next video, every time we post videos of our own, we are helping the world’s most sophisticated police state learn more about us.
When ByteDance announced it was expanding into the U.S., in 2017, I had recently been kicked out of China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang for investigating the beginnings of what the State Department has since labeled a genocide. Some 1.8 million people, mostly Uyghur Muslims, would soon be hauled away for such crimes as praying and not showing sufficient loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.
This mass internment has been made possible by AI and camera surveillance that can record every moment of people’s lives, even installing government surveillance cameras in private living rooms.
ByteDance was essential to that effort.
In April 2019, the company signed an agreement with the Chinese Ministry of Public Security—which has played a key role in the Uyghurs’ internment—promising to promote the ministry’s “influence and credibility.” ByteDance also bent over backward to suppress news, on its platform, of the Chinese state’s repression of the Uyghurs.
Xinjiang, it turns out, was the testing ground for a much more ambitious and global surveillance campaign carried out by companies like ByteDance and the smartphone-maker Huawei. Today, Chinese data collection has spread far beyond Chinese borders.
In November 2021, Britain’s MI6 intelligence chief, Richard Moore, warned that China was laying “data traps” all over the world. “If you allow another country to gain access to really critical data about your society, over time that will erode your sovereignty—you no longer have control over that data,” he told the BBC.
The idea that apps violate personal privacy is something that many Americans now shrug off. The difference in this case is that the company that is doing the violating is an extension of the Chinese state.
Internal ByteDance guidelines leaked to The Guardian in September 2019 showed that TikTok moderators were instructed to “censor videos that mention Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong.” Two months later, TikTok took the surprising step of suspending the account of a New Jersey teenager who posted a video about the Uyghur atrocities. (After that became public, TikTok backtracked.)
Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s director of government relations and public policy, acknowledged in a British parliamentary committee hearing in November 2020 that this censorship was not an anomaly.
American officials, for years, were mostly oblivious to the dangers posed by ByteDance and its efforts to circumvent U.S. oversight—stretching all the way back to the company’s acquisition, in 2017, of Musical.ly, another Chinese company that streamed music and was popular with American teenagers. The Musical.ly acquisition gave ByteDance tons of additional data and ultimately enabled it to launch what we now know as TikTok. But the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States missed what was going on, because it generally does not investigate foreign companies’ investments in other foreign companies.
At the same time, ByteDance spent more than $13 million on lobbying in Washington to ward off potential investigations—employing an army of Democrats and Republicans, including two former senators.
An internal memo outlining TikTok’s public-relations strategy, leaked in July 2022, advises company officials to: “Downplay the parent company ByteDance, downplay the China association, downplay AI.” It adds: “Emphasize TikTok as a brand/platform.”
Of course, the idea that a massive Chinese tech company is a wholly private entity—answerable to no one but its shareholders—is laughable.
I began documenting TikTok’s expansion in the years following its entry into America through interviews with dozens of employees and with former Chinese technology workers involved in government surveillance. Though TikTok denies it reports to the CCP—with the spurious claim that the U.S.-based company is separate from its Chinese parent—it’s possible to imagine that the data of countless Americans is flowing directly to party officials.
In China, the CCP has ultimate authority over people and institutions across the country. Business executives, technology innovators, journalists, police, and even court judges must accede to the party.
Uyghur refugees who had worked for Chinese technology companies and helped set up government surveillance systems of their own people, told me about aggressive police collection of data and how quickly companies handed it over without question. They showed me internal company documents and diagrams, too, that illustrated how the CCP gathers data on its population through ByteDance and other companies.
“Of course, ByteDance can spy for the CCP, and they do it all the time,” a former telecommunications worker who set up surveillance systems in Xinjiang told me. “Every Chinese app submitted to the government’s orders to send them all the data of sensitive users like Uyghurs and different ethnic groups. Why would TikTok be any different? It doesn’t matter if those companies are operating in America or not.”
Over the past year, I’ve spoken with 24 former TikTok employees, mostly in Los Angeles, the location of the company’s main office. They would only speak anonymously.
“The Chinese execs, they’re in control,” one former marketing employee said. “The American execs are there to smile, look pretty, push away criticism. But ByteDance is still calling the shots behind the scenes.”
Another former TikTok employee told me: “TikTok is an American company on paper. It’s a Chinese company underneath.”
In 2017, ByteDance established a committee that studied the speeches of General Secretary Xi Jinping—the better to hew to the party line.
In 2018, Zhang Yiming, the founder of ByteDance and TikTok and the former CEO, posted what can only be described as an apology to the Chinese premier for failing to live up to the party’s expectations. “We have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology,” he wrote, “and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system.”
In 2021, the Chinese government acquired a 1-percent stake in a subsidiary of ByteDance and picked up a board seat on the subsidiary—deepening its ties with the social-media platform. That same year, the government adopted the Data Security Law, which mandates that technology companies hand over their users’ data—including that of Americans—if requested.
TikTok insists that no one in its c-suite is a CCP member or reports to the party—noting, for example, that TikTok executives answer to a CEO, Shou Zi Chew, in Singapore (who wields limited authority over the company he ostensibly runs). What’s more, company higher-ups say, TikTok is migrating its data to U.S.-based servers audited by the American company Oracle; backup data will be stored on servers in the United States and Singapore.
This is a sleight of hand that distracts from China’s vast data-gathering capabilities and the requirement that ByteDance and TikTok employees in China comply with them.
“We may share all of the information we collect with a parent, subsidiary, or other affiliate of our corporate group,” reads TikTok’s privacy statement—the same statement every user signs when downloading the app.
What we know as “TikTok” is really part of a holding company incorporated in the Cayman Islands that owns the American company TikTok and the Chinese company ByteDance.
It doesn’t matter what TikTok’s corporate chieftains say to placate Americans. No matter how powerful you may be, no matter how much wealth you may have amassed, your business is intimately bound up with the Chinese state. There is no escaping it, and if you upset the wrong people, you are almost certain to pay a steep price.
Consider the case of Jack Ma, the founder of e-commerce giant Alibaba and the richest person in China. Ma disappeared from public view in November 2020, after criticizing state regulators. Two years later, he reemerged—a gaunt and rattled version of his former self. He later gave up control of another business venture, Ant Group, and, in July 2022, left China for Europe.
In recent months, we have gotten an even clearer sense of how deeply America is compromised by TikTok.
In June 2022, BuzzFeed published material from leaked audio files from 80 internal TikTok meetings. The leaks revealed that Chinese engineers accessed Americans’ data from at least September 2021 to January 2022, the timeframe of the leaked recordings. (That data can easily be stored on Chinese servers.)
On the tapes, an employee is heard discussing a Beijing-based engineer known as the “Master Admin” with “access to everything” on the app—contradicting the sworn congressional testimony of a TikTok executive, in October 2021, who claimed that this was not the case.
On October 20, Forbes revealed in a bombshell article that a China-based team at ByteDance planned to use TikTok to monitor the location of American citizens. TikTok claimed, in the article, that it gathers data on its users’ locations for the purposes of targeted advertising.
TikTok now has 138 million active monthly users across the United States and is projected to hit $12 billion in profits this year, and it is in P.R. mode, publicly challenging its critics. That includes me, following my Senate testimony in September.
The Biden administration is negotiating a deal with TikTok that would potentially require it to change its data and governance practices, but wouldn’t require ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American firm, according to The New York Times. A previous order under the Trump administration would have required ByteDance to sell TikTok to an American company or face a ban. TikTok sued the government, Trump left office, and the deal never went through.
Fears of Chinese manipulation of American elections has, curiously, not deterred candidates in those elections from using the app. More politicians than ever—one-third of Democratic contenders and 12 percent of Republican—are deploying TikTok to reach Gen Z voters. They are transforming the app from its miscellany of aspiring socialites showing off their private jets into an ever-more-perfect algorithm created in China and at the heart of our democracy.
Geoffrey Cain is the author of “The Perfect Police State.”