Yesterday reports emerged that US President Donald Trump is ready to ban the Chinese-made social media app in the US, along with nearly 60 similar apps. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the ban was in response to fears that Beijing might be using the app as a way to spy and deliver propaganda into the US. Speaking to Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Mr Pompeo revealed that he and the President are taking reports of Chinese surveillance and propaganda through TikTok as credible and serious.
He said: “We have worked on this very issue for a long time, whether its the problem of having Huawei technology in your infrastructure — we’ve gone all over the world and we are making real progress getting that out – we had declared ZTE a danger to American national security.
“With respect to Chinese apps on people’s cell phones, I can assure you the United States will get this one right too.”
Mr Pompeo refused to be pushed on any further details and specifics on potential laws.
But he did confirm that outright banning the app was something “we are looking at”.
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He warned American users of Chinese apps, urging them to be careful as they risk putting their private information “in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party”.
TikTok has boomed in recent years and its popularity has been aided by the coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
In 2019 alone, the platform recorded 37.2 million American users.
User growth is expected to rise year on year by 21.9 percent.
By the end of 2020 TikTok expects 45.5 million US users to be signed up.
Forbes reported in June that Apple caught the app spying on millions of users.
A similar event occurred in April.
The accusations are not new.
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Last year, a Guardian investigation revealed leaked documents that showed TikTok instructing its moderators to censor videos that mentioned issues sensitive to China’s Communist Party.
According to the document, some of these included “Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, or the banned religious group Falun Gong”.
The documents, according to The Guardian, proved that “ByteDance, the Beijing-headquartered technology company that owns TikTok, is advancing Chinese foreign policy aims abroad through the app”.
The censoring fell into two categories.
While some content was outright deleted, with the user in question banned from the platform, other content’s circulation was limited through TikTok’s algorithmically-curated feed.
The latter enforcement is cited as potentially being more dangerous as it can be “unclear to users whether they have posted infringing content, or if their post simply has not been deemed compelling enough to be shared widely by the notoriously unpredictable algorithm”.
The bans are veiled in the app’s “hate speech and religion” section.
In every case, they are placed in a context designed “to make the rules seem general purpose, rather than specific exceptions”.
A ban on criticism of China’s socialist system, for example, comes under a general ban of “criticism/attack towards policies, social rules of any country, such as constitutional monarchy, monarchy, parliamentary system, separation of powers, socialism system, etc”.
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Another ban covers “demonisation or distortion of local or other countries’ history such as May 1998 riots of Indonesia, Cambodian genocide, Tiananmen Square incidents”.
At the time of the investigation, in September, the Hong Kong protests had “virtually zero” content on TikTok, despite tensions reaching their peak.
A statement at the time reads: “In TikTok’s early days we took a blunt approach to minimising conflict on the platform, and our moderation guidelines allowed penalties to be given for things like content that promoted conflict, such as between religious sects or ethnic groups, spanning a number of regions around the world.
“As TikTok began to take off globally last year, we recognised that this was not the correct approach, and began working to empower local teams that have a nuanced understanding of each market. As we’ve grown we’ve implemented this localised approach across everything from product, to team, to policy development.
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“The old guidelines in question are outdated and no longer in use. Today we take localised approaches, including local moderators, local content and moderation policies, local refinement of global policies, and more.
We also consult with a number of independent local committees and are working to scale this at a global level, including forming an independent committee of leading industry organisations and experts to continually assess these policies.
“We also understand the need to be more transparent in communicating the policies that we develop and enforce to maintain a safe and positive app environment.
“Users gravitate to TikTok because it provides an app experience that fosters their creativity, and we are committed to supporting that across our teams, product, policies, and the way in which we openly communicate with our community.”
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In the UK, an estimated 4.9 million people use TikTok.
India has already banned the platform along with 59 other Chinese apps.
Narendra Modi’s government claims the apps use data illegally, and are secretly collecting information from people’s phones when they download the apps.
TikTok now faces losses of up to $6billion (£4.7billion) as hundreds of millions of users are cut off.