Buzzfeed’s election coverage tie-up with TikTok raises concerns about political censorship

Business & Technology

Chinese-owned TikTok, currently facing a U.S. security probe, will be used by BuzzFeed to cover the 2020 presidential election. But is the Chinese app censoring political content?

  • BuzzFeed News announced last Thursday that it will recruit teens aged 16–19 to create original TikTok and Instagram videos for the site’s 2020 election coverage.
  • TikTok has a record of censoring political content, and is currently under a U.S. national security probe by the Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

BuzzFeed News announced last Thursday that it will recruit teens aged 16–19 to create original TikTok and Instagram videos for the site’s 2020 election coverage.

TikTok, owned by the Beijing-headquartered ByteDance, is the overseas version of popular Chinese app Douyin. ByteDance has a suite of news and video apps, all powered by artificial intelligence (AI). These apps are wildly popular in China, which partly explains the company’s $78 billion valuation. Another important contributor: TikTok has become an essential part of teen culture in the U.S. and around the world. This is unique: no other Chinese internet service has caught on with users outside of China.

TikTok was created after ByteDance acquired the popular music and video sharing app Musical.ly for $1 billion in 2017. Founded in Shanghai in 2012, Musical.ly never became popular in China, but took off in the U.S. Basically, TikTok was made using some of Musical.ly’s functionality as well as code from Douyin, the domestic version of TikTok. Even more importantly, when Musical.ly shut down in 2017, TikTok inherited all of its 200 million users.

ByteDance’s short video empire

For U.S. teens, TikTok beats Facebook

TikTok has been downloaded 1.5 billion times. 122 million of those users are in the United States alone, according to data firm Sensor Tower. Axios reports that TikTok is more popular than Facebook among U.S. teens aged 13-16, with 60% of TikTok’s 26.5 million monthly active users in the United States aged 16-24 years. BuzzFeed News clearly plans to target the same younger demographic in its election coverage.

TikTok’s design entices younger viewers who like shorter videos. Upon opening the app, users are asked to select their interests (dance, music, comedy, life hacks, fandom, etc.). Videos play automatically. They are only 15 seconds long — the app’s tagline is: “Make every second count.”

Based on the type of videos each user spends more time watching — and other unknown factors — TikTok’s artificial intelligence gives each user a customized feed. The more you use the app, the better it gets to know your tastes, which is the main reason why TikTok is so addictive. The bottomless feed enables endless scrolling and content consumption. The average TikTok user spends 20.5 minutes per day using the app.

U.S. government identifies TikTok as a potential security threat

The popularity of the app with younger users, as well as broader scrutiny over Chinese tech companies operating within the United States, prompted Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to urge Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to open a national security review of ByteDance’s purchase of Musical.ly. In October 2019, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the U.S. Treasury regulatory body responsible for reviewing foreign investments that could pose national security risks, began looking at TikTok’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly. That same month, Musical.ly founder Alex Zhu (朱骏 Zhū Jùn), who heads the TikTok team, began reporting directly to ByteDance CEO Zhāng Yīmíng 张一鸣, according to CNBC. TikTok had not applied for clearance from CFIUS before acquiring Musical.ly., but the regulatory body still has jurisdiction to investigate acquisitions even after mergers occur.

TikTok is not the only Chinese owned company to come under CFIUS scrutiny. In 2018, CFIUS began an unprecedented review of Kunlun Technology’s 2016 acquisition of the U.S. same-sex dating app Grindr, which is used globally. The concern? That users’ sensitive data could be handed over to the Chinese government, potentially risking privacy of U.S. government officials vulnerable to blackmail should the Chinese have data regarding their HIV status, geolocation, and other private information that Grindr collects on some users.

TikTok says all is good

Media reports and statements from U.S. politicians raise concerns about two issues: censorship, and the risk that user data could be funneled to the Chinese government.

ByteDance maintains that the Chinese government does not request it to censor TikTok content.  The company has also made an effort to distance China operations from TikTok U.S. by establishing a team in Mountain View, California, to oversee data management, and by hiring more U.S. engineers.

Per CNBC, TikTok claims that U.S. user data is stored in the United States and that China does not have jurisdiction over content. After censorship of political videos in India, TikTok said it only hands over user data if legally required: “Any information request we receive is carefully reviewed for legal sufficiency, to determine whether, for example, the requesting entity is authorized to gather evidence in connection with a law enforcement investigation or to investigate an emergency involving imminent harm.”

But TikTok’s parent company will remain in Beijing, where companies simply cannot afford to say no to government requests for censorship or data. The fact that TikTok’s servers may all be outside China offers little reassurance in the face of the awesome leverage Beijing has over ByteDance.

TikTok has a history of political censorship in the U.S.

There is already evidence of TikTok “censoring videos that “do not please Beijing,” according to a September 2019 report by the Guardian. And then in November that year, TikTok suspended 17-year-old Feroza Aziz’s account in the United States after she posted a clip criticizing China’s persecution of Uygher Muslims. After an uproar on Twitter and other social media, her account was restored, but that hardly shows a commitment to free speech.

TikTok also practices “shadow banning,” a subtler form of censorship where content is not deleted but simply not shown to all the platforms users in the way normal videos are. Users may not even notice that a creator’s content is being censored. A recent case in India exemplifies the way TikTok can subtly target influencer content.

BuzzFeed News chose TikTok because of its staggering popularity among younger users, which is understandable, but it seems not have considered the ongoing national security probe, nor TikTok’s history of political censorship. SupChina asked BuzzFeed News to comment on the relationship between its TikTok election coverage campaign and TikTok’s previous censorship of political content. BuzzFeed News replied, “We have to decline comment on the censorship issues.”

Many Americans seem unconcerned. Casey Newton, who covers Silicon Valley for The Verge had this to say when asked if he had any concerns about the Buzzfeed TikTok tie-up:

I have no issue with media organizations experimenting with up-and-coming social platforms to see whether they are useful platforms for distributing news and information. BuzzFeed has arguably been better at that than anyone else, and their new teen election ambassadors would seem to be keeping with that tradition. I wish them well.

He did not answer questions about censorship. Is that sensible restraint when one does not know all the facts? Or is it complacency that will come back to haunt the American electorate in November 2020?