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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Attack TikTok, cut its Chinese Communist Party ties

PoliticsAttack TikTok, cut its Chinese Communist Party ties

In the 1920s, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union pioneered the art of disinformation. A hundred years later, the Chinese Communist Party has developed disinformation into a high-tech science.

You probably know how the Kremlin did propaganda: Thousands of KGB operatives would feed false information to journalists in dozens of countries to advance Moscow’s goals. Increasing anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism were high on the list.

Some of those journalists were fellow travelers. Others were what the Soviets called “useful idiots.”

Among the bogus stories the Kremlin pushed into both the Western and international press: that the CIA assassinated President John F. Kennedy, that the U.S. created AIDS, and that rich Americans were adopting Latin American children to harvest their organs.

But not in their wildest dreams could the Soviets have imagined what Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping would achieve with TikTok, the video-hosting service that has become the dominant media platform in the United States with 170 million subscribers.

TikTok has spread disinformation on COVID-19, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and Hamas’ war on Israel. It has pushed Osama bin Laden’s worldview to ill-educated Gen Z “influencers” and proliferated videos on how to cross the U.S. border illegally. 

Meanwhile, news about Beijing’s persecution of Uyghurs and Tibetans, its elimination of rights that had been guaranteed to Hong Kong, and its threats to Taiwan are suppressed. Divisions and discord in the United States — of which we have no shortage — are exacerbated by TikTok algorithms.

TikTok also collects an unprecedented amount of data on Americans — from search histories to keystroke patterns — that can be crunched for nefarious purposes.

The House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party has been working on this clear and present danger. Last week, a strong and exceedingly rare bipartisan majority in the House of Representatives passed the Protecting Americans From Foreign Adversary Controlled Applications Act.

The legislation would force ByteDance, TikTok’s owner, to divest within six months.

TikTok’s estimated value is more than $100 million, even though it is not believed to have ever turned a profit.

ByteDance has signaled that it may refuse to sell TikTok, which tells you that the issue here is control, which is vital to the Chinese government, not profit, which is the primary concern of independent corporations.

If TikTok is not sold, it would be banned in the U.S. But if it is bought by a company, not under the thumb of a hostile government, it would operate freely. No dance videos would be endangered. 

The 352 House members who voted for the bill (65 voted against it) deserve credit, not least because ByteDance spent millions of dollars on dozens of lobbyists from the most powerful K Street firms to derail the legislation. TikTok also urged subscribers to flood Capitol Hill with angry phone calls. Thousands did.

“This is my message to TikTok: break up with the Chinese Communist Party or lose access to your American users,” said Wisconsin Republican Mike Gallagher, the committee chairman. “America’s foremost adversary has no business controlling a dominant media platform in the United States.”

“Whether it’s Russia or the CCP, this bill ensures the President has the tools he needs to press dangerous apps to divest and defend Americans’ security and privacy against our adversaries,” said Illinois Democrat Raja Krishnamoorthi, the committee’s ranking member.

A broader issue, identified by my colleague Craig Singleton, senior director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ China program: “This legislation marks a pivotal moment in the ongoing battle for control over emerging public opinion spaces, deepening the geopolitical contest between China and the U.S.”

An FDD report on TikTok notes that ByteDance is “not just a tech company; it is a cog in China’s vast military machinery,” and “Chinese law requires ByteDance to adhere to CCP ideology.”

The report adds: “ByteDance is enmeshed with Chinese entities like iFLYTEK and SenseTime, which are complicit in Beijing’s surveillance and repression of ethnic minorities — actions that landed both firms on U.S. blacklists. ByteDance’s close collaboration with Sugon, a company contributing to China’s nuclear weapons program, underscores the alarming symbiosis between ByteDance and the state’s defense and surveillance sectors.”

That should make clear why TikTok is not a First Amendment issue. U.S. law already restricts foreign ownership of broadcast stations. Moreover, during the Cold War, would Washington have allowed Moscow to buy The Associated Press?

President Biden has said he will sign the divestment bill if it passes in the Senate. But that’s no slam-dunk.

ByteDance’s lobbying juggernaut has plenty of fight left in it, fueled by a nearly bottomless budget,” Mr. Singleton said.

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump attempted to use an executive order to force ByteDance to divest from TikTok, correctly warning that the Chinese Communist Party could use the platform to “track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” His executive order was blocked in court.

But now, it appears Mr. Trump has changed his mind. He’s been saying that Facebook — which banned him after the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — would gain if TikTok isn’t purchased by an American firm and then shuts down. And he wouldn’t want that.

Steve Mnuchin, who loyally served as Mr. Trump’s treasury secretary, is organizing a consortium to try to buy TikTok. Might that change Mr. Trump’s mind?

Final thought: Russian disinformation never became as sophisticated as the Chinese version. But the current version still operates through such media outlets as RT.

Russia’s just reelected president (aka dictator) Vladimir Putin has also imprisoned reporters Evan Gershkovich of The Wall Street Journal and Alsu Kurmasheva of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. That propagates a message to other journalists: “You can be a fellow traveler or a useful idiot. Or you can be an inmate. Your choice.”

• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.

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