by Micaela Burrow
TikTok accounts operating as voices of Chinese state media promoted messages that appeared to denigrate Republican candidates and favor Democratic ones ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, according to a Forbes investigation.
While the Chinese-owned social media app has verbally affirmed the need to crack down on election disinformation and foreign interference, several news-oriented accounts failed to disclose their affiliation with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state-owned media on the platform, Forbes found. The accounts racked up tens of millions views on posts that covered divisive topics, such as abortion and race, as well as critical clips that mostly targeted Republican candidates ahead of the 2022 midterms.
“This opens a new dimension for conversation about TikTok,” Conor Healy, director of government research at surveillance research group IPVM, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The accounts are managed by MediaLinks TV, which registered as a foreign agent for China with the Treasury Department in 2019 and distributes the U.S. branch of China Central Television (CCTV), CGTN, according to the company’s LinkedIn page. MediaLinks also operates the CCTV and CGTN apps, according to Apple.
The largest accounts are @Panadorama, @The…Optimist and @NewsTokss, the latter of which expressly covers U.S. national news, according to Forbes.
NewsTokss in particular ran content that overall shone Republican politicians in an unfavorable light and praised Democrats, Forbes found.
A video from July was introduced with the caption “Cruz, Abbott Don’t Care About Us,” referring to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, according to Forbes. Another from October criticized Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for having “Done Absolutely Nothing.”
Some content swayed against Democrats; one NewsTokss video in October asked viewers whether President Joe Biden’s promise to enshrine abortion rights served as a “political manipulation tactic,” Forbes found.
None of the videos clearly disclosed their ties to CGTN or the Chinese government, but the accounts’ profile bios did spell out, “Material distributed by MediaLinks TV LLC on behalf of CCTV. More info at DOJ, D.C.,” Forbes reported.
“That’s not disclosure,” Healy said. Between May 8 and July 6, NewsTokss received 8.3 million views but only 57,600 profile views, suggesting many users who watched the videos may not have realized a foreign government was pushing the content, Forbes reported.
Further, by redirecting users to the Department of Justice (DOJ), MediaLinks shrouded its status as a foreign agent.
However, such high-profile accounts should be easily identifiable as state-run, Healy argued to the DCNF.
“Either they don’t care and don’t have the protocols in place to deal with this, or they’re letting it happen,” he said.
In September, TikTok announced a new pilot policy of “mandatory verification for accounts belonging to governments, politicians, and political parties through the midterm elections” in November.
fbi director christopher wray: chinese control over tiktok algorithm allows them to manipulate content and wield it for influence operations
‘that should concern us’
— ian bremmer (@ianbremmer) December 2, 2022
“We plan to introduce our state-controlled media policy and corresponding labels globally next year as part of our continued focus on media literacy,” a spokesperson for TikTok told Forbes.
Technology and China researchers have long expressed concerns about China’s election interference via social media content; cybersecurity firm Recorded Future warned ahead of the 2018 midterm elections found Chinese-run accounts “disseminating breaking news and biased content surrounding President Trump and China-related issues.”
CGTN did not immediately respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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