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TikTok Owner ByteDance Accused of Promoting Pro-China Messaging: Ex-Employees

A native of New York, Alina has a Bachelors degree in Corporate Communications from Baruch College and writes about human rights' related issues, politics, tech and society.
Published: August 2, 2022
Trump's executive order banning TikTok in the United States has been revoked by Biden.
Trump's executive order banning TikTok in the United States has been revoked by the Biden administration. (Image: antonbe via Pixabay)

ByteDance, the owner of popular streaming and video sharing giant TikTok has once again come under fire after former employees came forward to accuse the platform of promoting “pro-China” content on its app. 

The ex-employees — who have remained anonymous due to security concerns — claim the company was placing the content on its now-defunct U.S. news app, TopBuzz, in efforts to shift public opinion regarding the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and “pinning” news that painted the regime in a more favorable light on the top of users’ news feeds. 

While working for TopBuzz, the four former ByteDance workers said they were instructed by other staff members to “place specific pieces of pro-China messaging in the app,” and promote content that encouraged people to travel or work in China. 

The news comes in stark contrast to other outlets that are seeing increased censorship in the U.S. On July 28, New York-based news outlet, The Epoch Times was slapped with a blanket warning on all its articles posted on Twitter. While links and previews from the media organization still appeared in Twitter posts, whenever a link was clicked, it would direct users to an exit page with the notice: “Warning: this link may be unsafe.”

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Two of the employees said they recalled simultaneously posting light-hearted content, such as videos about pandas and other animals, while also posting news promoting travel and benefits of starting a business in China. Another worker remembered seeing a staff member pinning a video in which a white man described the pros of moving his startup business to China.

While one of the sources said the pro-China messages could be characterized as more “soft” or evergreen content rather than overt political statements, the individual said, “Let’s be real, this was not something you could say no to. If they don’t do it, somebody’s going to jail.”

Other popular Chinese apps such as Weibo and WeChat are fully monitored by the CCP. The censors are so extreme that even browsing through topics deemed “sensitive” by the regime could result in the user’s account and activity being flagged and monitored. The CCP has had a long history of targeting and persecuting human rights activists and religious groups. Openly speaking out against the government could result in arrest, imprisonment, or worse.

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In response to a request for comment, ByteDance spokesperson Billy Kenny told BuzzFeed in an emailed response that: “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. TopBuzz had over two dozen top tier US and UK media publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, which clearly did not find anything of concern when performing due diligence.”

US lawmakers concerned

This isn’t the first time that ByteDance has been accused of violating its own community guidelines, which state that users’ are prohibited from posting “general-user political content.” Former U.S. President Donald Trump said in August 2020 that he would ban the use of TikTok in the United States through an executive order. 

Now, a growing number of lawmakers are calling on the Biden administration to address concerns that the growing platform is violating users’ privacy by posting pro-China content without their knowledge or consent. The politicians have also cited national security concerns stemming from a June report that said users’ data in the U.S. was being “repeatedly accessed from China.” The report also included over 80 leaked audio files from internal meetings showing how the app was in violation of users’ stored data. 

After Trump left office however, ​​the Biden administration revoked the executive order and walked back official attempts to ban or limit the use of the app in the U.S. Last year, TikTok announced that it had reached over 1 billion monthly active users across the world — out of which over 100 million were said to be based in the U.S. 

According to market research estimates, activity on the app continues to be a force in shaping new trends in music, cooking and celebrity news, with some influencers generating lucrative incomes as a result of their TikTok careers. Recently, other social media platforms such as Meta and Instagram have tweaked their newsfeed pages in efforts to mimic TikTok’s features and attract new users.