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Marco Rubio: TikTok's parent company poses a threat to national security

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Recently, a constituent sent an email to my office regarding TikTok. “I have not yet seen any evidence that the app poses any security risks,” he wrote. I hear this often from Americans who are skeptical of Congress' bill that would require TikTok to cut ties with its Chinese parent company ByteDance.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to respond directly to these and other concerns because forcing a company to divest has serious consequences. My answer is: ByteDance is not a normal company. The evidence is clear that the Chinese Communist Party is using it to manipulate and spy on Americans through TikTok.

For one thing, the Chinese Communist Party controls ByteDance by law. In 2017, China's legislature called on “all organizations and citizens” to “assist, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts.” This means Beijing can order ByteDance to hand over Americans' TikTok data or change the algorithm TikTok uses to manipulate public opinion in the United States.

However, the ties between ByteDance and the Chinese Communist Party do not end there. The technology giant is closely linked to China's security forces. In 2019, ByteDance and China's Ministry of Public Security agreed on a strategic cooperation plan to spread propaganda and strengthen China's “national security matrix” through ByteDance's platforms.

ByteDance has also worked to develop artificial intelligence for the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2018, the company founded the Beijing Academy of Artificial Intelligence, which works with Chinese universities to strengthen China's supercomputing capabilities. These efforts are linked to both China's Ministry of Science and Technology and the People's Liberation Army.

When you look at who runs ByteDance, the line between the company and the regime becomes even blurrier. After China banned an early version of TikTok in 2018, ByteDance founder Zhang Yiming crawled into Beijing and promised to embrace and spread “core socialist values.” Today, ByteDance's editor-in-chief, deputy editor-in-chief, and vice president of government relations are all members of the Chinese Communist Party and/or the United Front system. The Chinese government also owns a “golden share” of a key ByteDance subsidiary, allowing a former government official to control the entire board.

ByteDance's business partners, meanwhile, include some of China's most notorious human rights abusers and military-linked companies. In fact, the US government is blacklisting iFLYTEK, Megvii and SenseTime – all of which have worked with ByteDance – for enabling Beijing's genocide against Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups. Another ByteDance partner, Sugon, is blacklisted for “helping the Chinese military conduct nuclear weapons simulation tests and hypersonic glide vehicle tests.”

TikTok logo on phone
This illustration photo taken on October 30, 2023 shows the logo of TikTok, a short video hosting service owned by ByteDance, on a smartphone in Mulhouse, eastern France.

SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP/Getty Images

What does this all have to do with TikTok? It shows that TikTok's parent company, the company that controls TikTok's algorithm and accesses TikTok user data, is working hand-in-hand with an opposing regime and its military-industrial complex. China's military is not designed to enrich or strengthen America, and neither are the companies it works with.

There is also ample evidence that TikTok and ByteDance have already spied on American journalists, stolen Americans' sensitive financial data, and interfered in America's political process. Meanwhile, evidence is mounting that ByteDance is manipulating TikTok's algorithm to influence what users see – and what they don't.

Recent analysis shows that the ratio of pro-Israel content on Instagram compared to TikTok is more than six to one, despite the apps' comparable user bases. If TikTok were truly a neutral free speech platform, this ratio would certainly be lower. Things get even worse when you consider political issues that are more sensitive to Beijing. There is almost 82 times more Tiananmen Square content on Instagram than on TikTok.

This fits perfectly with what the Chinese Communist Party wants to achieve with the app. As the Jamestown Foundation reports, party members have at various times called for the use of TikTok to “accurately capture the cognitive orientation of target users/audiences in the United States” in order to “fight the war of public opinion well” and “construct “. to put “the party’s image” in a positive light.

Leave aside what my colleagues and I were told during a secret meeting. This publicly available information tells a damning story about ByteDance's ownership of American social media. It's no surprise that China has declared the TikTok algorithm a “protected technology,” blocking foreign control, while TikTok itself has blocked researchers from systematically analyzing its material.

To everyone who asked me about this, here's the bottom line: ByteDance shouldn't be allowed to curate your video feeds. Our laws prohibit foreign nations from controlling television and radio stations, so we shouldn't let our greatest adversary pull the strings on TikTok, from which a third of Americans under 30 reportedly get their news.

Marco Rubio, a Republican, is a U.S. Senator from Florida.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.