A group of top Republican U.S. Senators on Tuesday ramped up pressure on TikTok, asking the Trump administration to assess the threat that the popular Chinese-owned video sharing app might meddle in U.S. elections.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton and other lawmakers cited alleged censorship by TikTok of sensitive content, including a video critical of China’s treatment of its Uighur minority, as well as alleged attempts by Beijing to manipulate political discussions on social media apps. “We are greatly concerned that the (Chinese Communist Party) could use its control over TikTok to distort or manipulate (political) conversations to sow discord among Americans and to achieve its preferred political outcomes,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Office of Director of National Intelligence (ODHI), the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
A spokesperson for the company said that TikTok, though not a “go-to” for political news, was “proactively investing to safeguard our app” and taking cues from the experience of peers during the last election. “TikTok already has a strict policy against disinformation, and we don’t accept political ads,” the person said, adding that content and moderation policies are led by a California-based team and aren’t “influenced by any foreign government”. The FBI and DHS did not respond to requests for comment while an ODNI official confirmed receipt of the letter and said “we will respond accordingly.” Chinese foreign spokesman Wang Wenbin, speaking at a daily news conference in Beijing on Wednesday, said that China has no interest in the U.S. election and urged certain people in the United States to stop “suppressing” Chinese companies.
The U.S. lawmakers, joined by Republicans Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst Thom Tilis, Kevin Cramer and Rick Scott, asked the officials to say whether Beijing could amplify certain political views and conduct influence operations through the popular app, which is owned by Beijing ByteDance Technology Co. “If evidence emerges of CCP electoral interference via TikTok, would ByteDance be eligible for sanctions” under an executive order on foreign electoral influence, the lawmakers asked. TikTok is in the crosshairs of the Trump administration as U.S.-China ties have soured over the pandemic and Beijing’s move to curb freedoms in Hong Kong. This month, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said action was imminent to address national security risks posed by TikTok.
Trump’s poll numbers have been sagging as he prepares to face Democrat Joe Biden in the November election. In 2019, special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report found extensive cases of Russian meddling that benefited the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.