TikTok’s Chump Change Strategy Isn’t Fooling Anyone

“Drag a hundred-dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find.”
James Carville

According to CNN Business, the U.S. government is considering banning the use of Chinese social media apps like TikTok.  The review is due to an abundance of caution about who gets access to the data scraping and user profiling, plus the techniques of bad actors using bots connected to social media to amplify the emotional contagion long associated with these apps and studied by companies like Facebook.

We have seen bad actors field bot armies using Twitter routinely, especially the 50¢ Wu Mao Army paid to influence public opinion of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and the Google-backed fake bot army used to interfere in the European Parliament’s Copyright Directive.  The press called out the fakery by Google in exposes by the Times of London and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung among others.

helga tweet
Tweet from MEP Helga Truepel

It also must be said that someone mustered a bot army to engage in creating fake enthusiasm regarding attendance at the Trump campaign rally in Tulsa.  Love him or hate him, the fact that this interference could be manipulated through TikTok, particularly in the way it was done, is reminiscent of other bot army attacks.  This time it was a campaign rally, but what will it be next time?  And even if you don’t support Trump, ask yourself how you will feel when it is done to your candidate or an issue you care about?

During the Obama Administration, Professor Cass Sunstein (then Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) cautioned the government about using social media of any kind for purposes of making policy.  One reason is how susceptible it is to fakery because the private companies that own these networks do more or less nothing to make them secure.  As was demonstrated by the press covering the European Copyright Directive, private companies use social media manipulation to advance their commercial goals and their lobbying which has a second order effect on public policy.

Sunstein’s reasoning is well articulated in a 2010 memo where he cautioned the Obama Administration against relying on social media for making policy through techniques like casual polls:

“Because, in general, the results of online rankings, ratings, and tagging (e.g., number of votes or top rank) are not statistically generalizable, they should not be used as the basis for policy or planning.”

In a post-Cambridge Analytica world where social media platforms not only are ubiquitous but also have earned the distrust of policy-makers and voters as well as parents, Sunstein’s old admonition is especially prescient-but he could have added “easy to fake.” This would apply to the new boiler rooms of fake Twitter accounts with distorted ratios of tweets to followers, or followed accounts to likes–such as the infamous Internet Research Agency, and now it appears the same techniques are being used by TikTok.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Hudson Institute on July 7, 2020:

[L]et me be clear: This is not about the Chinese people, and it’s certainly not about Chinese Americans. Every year, the United States welcomes more than 100,000 Chinese students and researchers into this country. For generations, people have journeyed from China to the United States to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their families—and our society is better for their contributions. So, when I speak of the threat from China, I mean the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party….

China is using social media platforms—the same ones Americans use to stay connected or find jobs—to identify people with access to our government’s sensitive information and then target those people to try to steal it.

India has banned a long list of China-based social media apps including TikTok.  This is in part because India is currently engaged in an underreported shooting war with China on its borders which Pakistan could join any minute in a China-Pakistan alliance.  (That incursion should come as no surprise to anyone who follows the history as China also attacked Indian territory in 1962 while America’s attention was distracted by the Cuban Missile Crisis.  The 1962 war in which 2,000 died also related to China’s annexation of Tibet, a tragedy that continues to this day and later inspired Adam Yauch’s passion for the Tibetan Freedom Concert.)

If you think it’s an accident that China chose this moment to crack down on Hong Kong, then you should include Pollyanna on your summer reading list.  And if you don’t think Taiwan could be next, then you wouldn’t have ordered two carrier strike groups into the South China Sea.  (And you probably wouldn’t have built military bases on coral reefs, either.)


The question is will the U.S. follow India’s direction, and it looks like America is at least considering following India’s example.   As Secretary of State Pompeo said recently to CNN, “people should only download the app ‘if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.’”

Mindful of the existential effect getting banned in the U.S. could have on Bytedance’s IPO aspirations for the company, TikTok of course has pushed back, because this is a problem solved by the payment of money, life changing to TikTok leadership, but chump change to the CCP:

“TikTok is led by an American CEO, with hundreds of employees and key leaders across safety, security, product, and public policy here in the US,” a TikTok spokesperson said in a statement following Pompeo’s comments. “We have no higher priority than promoting a safe and secure app experience for our users. We have never provided user data to the Chinese government, nor would we do so if asked.”

Now see, that’s just not the way they want to go with this.  First of all, if the CCP has the same relationship with TikTok parent Bytedance as they have with the other leading surveillance companies in China, TikTok wouldn’t need to “provide” data to the Chinese government–the CCP probably already controls it back in China.  And maybe they would not be asked, but they would be ordered to turn over user data.  This is called assuming facts not in evidence.

Bytedance founder Zhang Yiming has accomplished the impossible–getting a puff piece in HITS and also making the top 100 list of the Chinese Communist Party.

According to the South China Morning Post:

“Andrew Collier, managing director at Orient Capital Research, said the publication of the list, which comprises mostly founders of large firms, was indicative of Beijing’s increased focus on private firms as it seeks to boost the influence of the party in the sector.

“Xi Jinping has been very active in increasing state control through dual appointments and rotating positions between firms, which helps to lock down favoured corporate chieftains,” he said.

Given the influence of the CCP over public companies, like CCP members Jack Ma and Pony Ma, it shouldn’t be surprising that China’s President-for-Life Xi Jinping doesn’t like his public companies being audited by U.S. public accounting firms and held to the same standards as all the other public companies.  You know, Sarbanes Oxley and all that jazz. So it’s virtually impossible to confirm if TikTok is telling the truth absent a good old fashioned grand jury.

Bloomberg China

In the great tradition of China’s lobbying efforts in the U.S. and now in Hong Kong, it is true that TikTok has been busily hiring highly paid Americans to deflect attention on the company’s U.S. operations.  This includes Michael Beckerman (call sign “Shoe Man”), the stylish former head of the Internet Association, who still seems to be looking for a role in a Zoolander sequel.

Michael Beckerman

TikTok also hired former Playboy and Disney executive Kevin Mayer as the CEO of the U.S. company.  When Mr. Mayer gets his CID, there should be some interesting material there as if there is a story as Secretary Pompeo expects, it is Mr. Mayer who will have some answers.  Of course, a U.S. Attorney may skip the CID and just impanel a grand jury to investigate TikTok’s crimes, if they haven’t already.  Or we could be back in FISA-land for a counterintelligence investigation if TikTok tries hard enough.

As FBI Director Wray said:

We’ve now reached the point where the FBI is opening a new China-related counterintelligence case about every 10 hours. Of the nearly 5,000 active FBI counterintelligence cases currently underway across the country, almost half are related to China. And at this very moment, China is working to compromise American health care organizations, pharmaceutical companies, and academic institutions conducting essential COVID-19 research.

I wonder how frequently Mr. Beckerman and Mr. Mayer change SIM cards?