Congress Needs to Make TikTok the Star of the Show

Joel Lauren Thayer
8 min readJan 29, 2024

Congress is again bringing a collection of tech CEOs — specifically, Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, TikTok’s Shou Zi Chew, Discord’s Jason Citron, Snap’s Evan Spiegel, and X’s Linda Yaccarino — into the beltway on January 31, 2024. The topic? Big Tech’s “failure to protect children online.” And it makes sense. Social media and other tech services have been linked to children experiencing high instances of depression, anxiety, isolation, and suicide.

All of this is true and these companies have a lot to answer for on the issue, but one sticks out among the rest — TikTok. TikTok’s algorithm has shown an especially blatant disregard for the well-being of children. Worse, the app is known for targeting kids specifically. Even worse, the app has a clear connection to the Chinese government. These factors warrant a more direct line of questioning and emphasis from congressional members in this hearing.

With this in mind, here’s what Congress should ask TikTok:

1. Specifically, what personal information does TikTok collect from children?

There is a lot the Chinese government might find valuable in the data TikTok collects about American users. TikTok’s privacy policy states that it collects consumers’ real-time location, search history and biometric data (e.g., fingerprints or facial imprints). Worse, TikTok requires the use of your device’s microphone to collect voiceprints. Without access to TikTok’s source code, which only the company possesses, it’s hard to know what the app does with the permissions it’s given. But there is evidence that it records even when you aren’t using it. TikTok users report that Apple’s app-spying feature, which alerts device owners when apps access your microphone or camera, pinged them about TikTok accessing their mics when the app was closed. If TikTok’s access is as expansive as that implies, the Chinese government could use a smartphone as a listening device.

As of 2020, TikTok had access to clipboard content on Apple devices, which can provide some access to anyone using a password manager for secured accounts. TikTok said it would stop accessing users’ clipboard content on iOS devices, after Apple’s new privacy transparency feature in iOS 14 revealed that it was continuing the practice. But it’s unclear whether it has, and no firm date accompanied the promise.

Frankly, TikTok operates in complete opacity and we need a clearer understanding on what they are collecting and from whom — especially if they are targeting children.

2. What is TikTok doing to combat the epidemic of deadly challenges and dangerous trends rampant on its platform?

TikTok challenges have led to a slew of accidental deaths. For instance, 13-year-old Jacob Stevens died after ingesting a dangerous amount of Benadryl. But how? Did a negligent parent provide him too much to treat an allergy? No. Jacob was participating in TikTok’s “Benadryl Challenge” in which users take high amounts of the drug and film their responses.

This is not an isolated incident as there are myriad TikTok challenges that directly harm children. For example, TikTok’s “Blackout Challenge” has kids choking one another until they pass out, its “Dragon’s Breath” challenge encourages kids to eat Dragon’s Breath — a candy-coated liquid nitrogen treat linked to hospitalizations, or the ”Beezin’ challenge” that has kids to rub Burt’s Bees lip balm into their eyelids to get a high. And the list goes on.

What has TikTok done to address this issue? Not a thing. They merely point to voluntary restrictions that it knows kids will almost certainly not leverage and parents won’t find.

3. Has TikTok addressed its direct connection with China?

Leaked audio of TikTok’s internal meetings obtained by BuzzFeed contradicts the company’s sworn testimony to Congress last fall that U.S. user data is managed by a “world-renowned U.S.-based security team.” BuzzFeed reports that American staff couldn’t access the data on their own and had to ask Chinese colleagues where user information was going. The China-based engineers had access to nonpublic U.S. user data at least from September 2021 to January 2022, according to BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed reports that “in the recordings, the vast majority of situations where China-based staff accessed US user data were in service” of halting the flow of American data to China. But the fact that Chinese engineers had this access presents a national-security risk.

These revelations are unsurprising to those who understand the intimate relationship between the Chinese government and large Chinese companies like ByteDance — TikTok’s parent company. To ensure alignment with Beijing’s policies, ByteDance has had an internal party committee as part of its governance structure since 2017. And TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew, who promised to localize all U.S. user data, served as ByteDance’s CFO for most of 2021 and before that was president of international operations for Xiaomi Technology, a software developer the Pentagon considers a “Communist Chinese military company.”

At this point, TikTok has done nothing to quell these concerns and seems obstinately adverse in addressing the issue. Furthermore it is unclear if officials at TikTok could even explain how their worldview is different from CCP officials.

4. We know that the CCP has a backdoor to TikTok, are they or can they use that same backdoor to spy on our children?

It gets worse, a former high-level ByteDance executive claimed that the company has a “back door channel” in TikTok’s code providing members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) view data from users anywhere in the world, including the United States. TikTok calls this mode “God Status” where the party can engage in such practices. God status is TikTok’s ‘superuser’ credential that allows the CCP to gain access to data on American users and Hong Kong protesters. If TikTok can levy that against protestors with ease, why should we assume that they don’t do this to give the CCP access to our children? TikTok operates in complete opacity on this issue and Congress needs to ensure that they are transparent here.

This function and opacity are even more concerning given that TikTok’s parent ByteDance has admitted to tracking at least two U.S.-based journalists and reports show that ByteDance had in fact intended to use TikTok to monitor specific American citizens. We can’t assume that children are exempt from this form of espionage.

5. Why does TikTok feed educational materials to kids in China but inundate American kids with harmful conduct?

It’s worth noting that TikTok’s American version isn’t allowed in China. In fact, TikTok’s Chinese contemporary, Douyin, has a 40-minute daily limit for kids under 14. The Douyin content that it pushes to kids in China is also different than what TikTok pushes to American children. In China, TikTok will show children “science experiments [they] can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos.” In the US, TikTok provides children with a barrage of self-harm content, such as fake weight loss treatments that promote eating disorders, Islamic extremist positions, and deadly challenges.

This clearly demonstrates that TikTok can protect children in the US, but just doesn’t want to.

6. Mr. Chew will you denounce the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs?

Last year, the TikTok CEO dodged a question from Congresswoman Lesko on whether he agreed that the Chinese government has persecuted Uyghurs. Given the undeniable evidence that the Chinese government may be in the midst of a mass extermination of this minority religious group, it requires Mr. Chew to say something he knows will offend China. This obfuscation is not limited to Mr. Chew, but also TikTok’s US public policy head Michael Beckerman who refused to acknowledge that China has done anything wrong in relation to Uyghurs.

If either have a problem denouncing this blatant human rights violation occurring in China, then it shows just how entrenched the CCP is in TikTok’s operations and where TikTok’s loyalties lie.

7. If China doesn’t have any effect on TikTok’s practices, then why is TikTok suppressing topics that offend only China?

A report from the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University demonstrates that TikTok suppresses topics that offend China only. The report analyzed the volume of posts with certain hashtags on TikTok and Instagram then compared the amount of posts on each platform. For example, terms like #TaylorSwift and #Trump were given about equal treatment on both platforms. But for #Uyghur or #Uighur the ratio jumped. For every 8 posts with that hashtag on Instagram, there was only 1 on TikTok. This was not the only topic, for #Tibet it was 30-to-1, for #TiananmenSquare 57-to-1, and for #HongKongProtest 174-to-1. This indicates that TikTok clearly targets this information and suppresses them. If true, then it becomes even clearer that China has more control over the company than what the company has said publicly.

8. If TikTok is an American company, then why does TikTok bolster CCP propaganda on its platform?

Forbes showed that, from October 2022 to at least July 2023, Chinese state media outlets ran more than 1,000 ads on the platform. Much of the content featured “talking points from its TV, radio and print outlets that tout China’s economy, technology and cultural heritage.”

As Forbes reported:

“One ad, shown in March, was paid for by China News International and featured a man doing a traditional dance under the caption “Xinjiang is a good place!” Another video shows a CGTN host visiting an elementary school in Xinjiang. The school visited by the host was located in the county of Pishan in Xinjiang, where the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has tracked the construction of six detention facilities. Ads also tout tours of the region and the culture of its mostly Muslim Uyghur population.”

TikTok also bolstered anti-Israeli content to its users, which is consistent with China’s geo-political position. Jewish teens were inundated with pro-Hamas content. Worse, researchers at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Tech and Society found that “bad actors appear to be sidestepping TikTok’s moderation policies to spread antisemitic content through slideshows (Photo Mode) and hashtags.” This has led to more antisemitic content and pro-Hamas content on the platform.

The issue here is that it’s becoming clear that what kids see on TikTok impacts their views on these issues in the real world. As Senator Hawley pointed out, “Analysts have attributed this disparity to the ubiquity of anti-Israel content on TikTok, where most young internet users get their information about the world.” Senator Rubio seconded this when saying that TikTok has become “cesspools of [pro-Hamas] misinformation and indoctrination” and a vehicle for “brainwashing”.”

This is an increasing concern because more children are receiving their information from this platform and it’s becoming clear that the CCP may have an avenue to influence our youth on myriad issues, not just the war in Isreal.

Although it is true that we should take all of these social media companies to task, we need to address the elephant in the room — TikTok is a CCP weapon aimed directly at our children.

--

--

Joel Lauren Thayer

President of the Digital Progress Institute and a DC tech and telecom attorney.