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China's influence operations against the U.S. are bigger than TikTok

A newly signed law requires that the Chinese-owned TikTok app be sold to satisfy national security concerns.
Joe Raedle
Getty Images
A newly signed law requires that the Chinese-owned TikTok app be sold to satisfy national security concerns.

A new law passed this week would ban TikTok in the United States unless ByteDance, its Chinese owner, sells the popular video app.

National security is at the heart of bipartisan concerns in Washington motivating the law. Lawmakers say they're worried the Chinese government could lean on ByteDance in order to use TikTok to suck up Americans' data, surveil them, and spread false and misleading claims to U.S. voters.

"It's not hard to imagine how a platform that facilitates so much commerce, political discourse and social debate could be covertly manipulated to serve the goals of an authoritarian regime," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said this week.

Many lawmakers who supported the bill said classified intelligence briefings have raised alarms about TikTok — but have not yet made that information available for public scrutiny. Some members of Congress have pushed back, including Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who said while he has concerns about many social networks' collection of user data, he had seen "no credible evidence" that TikTok presents a threat just because its parent company is based in China.

So what do we know about China's efforts to manipulate Americans using social media, and what role does TikTok play?

China's growing information operations

While much of the discussion about foreign interference in elections has focused on Russia since 2016, China presents a growing threat, according to the intelligence community, tech companies and independent researchers.

Beijing has stepped up its online information operations in recent years in support of its broader goals, experts say. China "aims to sow doubts about U.S. leadership, undermine democracy, and extend Beijing's influence," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in its annual threat assessment earlier this year.

In past cycles, that took the form of trying to shape U.S. policy toward China. For example, in a handful of 2022 midterm races, Beijing sought to boost candidates seen as pro-China and counter those seen as opposing its interests, according to a December report from the ODNI.

More recently, those efforts have shifted to exploiting existing partisan divides in the U.S. That includes "the Chinese actually going into U.S. audience spaces, masquerading as Americans, and posting inflammatory content around current events or social issues or political issues," said Clint Watts, general manager of Microsoft's Threat Analysis Center.

Researchers at Microsoft as well as the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue have identified accounts on X, formerly known as Twitter, posing as Donald Trump supporters, attacking President Biden, and seizing on hot-button topics such as immigration. Microsoft said some accounts even seemed to be polling American voters on what issues divided them most.

"Joe Biden 'belongs in a nursing home' not the White House," one account posted — but the post also included Mandarin characters, apparently due to an incorrect browser setting, ISD said.

Other China-linked accounts used AI-generated images to spread a baseless conspiracy theory that the U.S. government deliberately set last year's Maui wildfires to test a military "weather weapon," Microsoft said.

Microsoft and ISD both linked the posts they identified to Spamouflage, a long-running Chinese network of fake accounts across social networks including Facebook, X and TikTok. Spamouflage accounts have previously pushed attacks on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, praised China's COVID-19 response, and posted videos with AI-generated news anchors promoting Chinese leadership.

Last year, Facebook owner Meta said Spamouflage is the largest covert influence operation it's ever disrupted — and linked it to Chinese law enforcement. Despite their breadth, however, these efforts have failed to gain many followers or have significant impact.

"The vast scale of Spamouflage has previously been offset by its ineffectual tactics and uncompelling content; if the operators find a strategy which works, potentially augmented by generative AI, it could start to become a real problem," wrote Elise Thomas, ISD senior analyst.

TikTok has been used in these publicly identified Chinese operations, but researchers say they have not seen a particular focus on the app that goes beyond other popular platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. (TikTok is also difficult for researchers to access.)

Election workers in Taipei, Taiwan, inspect boxes containing ballots as counting got underway on Jan. 13, 2024. China unsuccessfully sought to influence Taiwan's elections via social media, including TikTok.
Annabelle Chih / Getty Images
Getty Images
Election workers in Taipei, Taiwan, inspect boxes containing ballots as counting got underway on Jan. 13, 2024. China unsuccessfully sought to influence Taiwan's elections via social media, including TikTok.

China's information campaign against Taiwan

One place where China has more aggressively attempted to use TikTok to influence politics is Taiwan, which held its own presidential election in January.

As in the U.S., China's goal is to undermine democracy, said Chihhao Yu, co-director of the Taiwan Information Environment Research Center (IORG).

He said the strategy is to "create an alternative worldview for Mandarin readers in Taiwan, of course, but also around the world for Mandarin-speaking communities."

Yu's group has found what it calls proxy accounts on TikTok and YouTube that share videos identical to those posted on official state-controlled accounts on Douyin, China's version of TikTok, without any disclosure of their origins. Sometimes the videos even appear on TikTok before they are posted to the official Douyin accounts.

"That is saying that the [Chinese government] does not necessarily need its official footprint on TikTok to have an influence on TikTok," Yu said.

Other researchers in Taiwan have identified TikTok influencers who appear to be using the same scripts to talk about divisive issues like migrant workers. Some influencers who typically post videos about fashion and beauty posted seemingly scripted videos alleging election fraud.

Still, there's no suggestion that the Chinese government was coordinating with ByteDance in its use of TikTok influencers and proxy accounts.

And ultimately, these efforts to sway Taiwanese voters were unsuccessful: The incumbent pro-independence candidate opposed by Beijing won reelection.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.