Sunday

9th Aug 2020

Opinion

And now some questions for China's TikTok

  • One of the fastest-growing social media platforms worldwide, TikTok is home to silly memes, celebrity videos, and trenchant political satire alike - on US politicians, that is

In a week of firsts last week, a high-level European Commission communication named China as responsible for targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns around Covid-19.

In parallel, the most globally successful video sharing platform owned by a Chinese company – TikTok – signed onto the EU's Code of Practice on Disinformation.

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European Commission vice-president Věra Jourová announced on Wednesday (10 June), TikTok will join Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and Mozilla as a signatory to the Code of Practice.

This self-regulatory code was launched in 2018, and updated this week with new transparency and reporting obligations, in order to bring higher accountability to platforms in their handling of online disinformation.

Last week's announcements open a new chapter for the European Union's fight against foreign interference and an opportunity for the EU to wield its newly-strengthened anti-disinformation tools on an emerging platform.

Yet it remains to be seen whether the EU's disinformation mechanism, which has been criticised in its present form, can handle the unique challenge of overseeing TikTok, whose challenges may prove different from those of the US-based tech companies for which the existing system has been designed.

TikTok should also be under scrutiny for the potential suppression of content that offends the Chinese Communist Party.

The updates the commission presented to the code of practice may meaningfully increase the EU's leadership from the EU on platform transparency, but the mechanism as it currently stands is unlikely to be up the task of fighting Chinese political censorship.

The EU has a choice to make – will it keep developing its transparency regime to protect the plurality of views and freedom of speech?

If not, there is a risk that by taking TikTok into the code of practice, the commission will facilitate the whitewashing of and give a boost to TikTok's reputation without achieving greater transparency in return.

What is TikTok?

One of the fastest-growing social media platforms worldwide, TikTok is home to silly memes, celebrity videos, and trenchant political satire alike - on US politicians, that is.

But there are significant questions about the extent to which TikTok's parent company, China-based ByteDance, propagates censorship on the platform of content that is critical of the Chinese Communist Party.

At the height of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last fall, for example, hashtags relating to the protests appeared abundantly on platforms like Twitter.

On TikTok, however, the same hashtags yielded scant results and almost no signs of unrest.

Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok (also owned by ByteDance) appears to be censoring content to comply with the authoritarian regime's rules – in one recent instance a Chinese singer's account was apparently suspended after being reported because he looked similar to Xi Jingpin.

And during the Hong Kong protests, Douyin was awash with patriotic messages from Chinese state media.

It is extremely difficult to provide definitive evidence of explicit censorship given the transitory nature of the videos that fly by on TikTok's platform and the opaque process by which they are select for display.

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic have sought to address concerns over the platform.

Last Tuesday (9 June), the European Data Protection Bureau decided to establish a taskforce to coordinate action and prepare an overview of TikTok's practices across the EU, after questions raised by MEP Moritz Körner.

Similarly, in the United States, TikTok is reportedly under national security review, as legislators of both parties have raised concerns over its handling of content and whether it pipes user data back to the Chinese government.

In the UK, however, TikTok was not asked to appear before the virus inquiry with British lawmakers on 30 April, in which the largest technology companies (including Facebook, Google and Twitter) were asked to reveal their efforts to eliminate the amplification of misinformation during the Covid-19 crisis.

Questions over TikTok's possible censorship are themselves a clarion call for greater transparency writ large on how platform algorithms prioritise content for users.

That's why it's interesting that the announcement of TikTok's membership coincides with the roll-out of stricter requirements for social media platforms that subscribe to the code of practice.

While these new requirements are tied to the coronavirus response and efforts to curb the ensuing 'infodemic' they may open the door for greater EU oversight over social media platforms more broadly.

TikTok's membership provides an opportunity for the EU to take a renewed look at information manipulation online and institute needed transparency that all platforms lack.

A successful approach would mean that standards depend not only on how much content is taken down – but also on how it is algorithmically prioritised and shown.

Information manipulation and influence are not just about the false content actors push on a platform, or the censored content that never reaches wider audiences, but how that platform prioritises types of content as part of its algorithmic infrastructure.

Info suppression

Information suppression can be just as dangerous a tool as outright disinformation – and more insidious.

Given TikTok's rising global popularity, it's clear this transparency is needed, and the EU has an opportunity to lead the charge.

Absent strong scrutiny and such an expanded understanding of information manipulation, both of which are currently lacking, TikTok's membership in the Code of Practice risks prematurely legitimising the platform as a responsible information space actor and providing cover for suspected political censorship therein.

The EU needs to face up to the reality that authoritarian states use information suppression – in addition to information propagation - as weapons for narrative control in an unfolding contest over the information environment.

Absent US leadership to build transparency around the ways online platforms display information, EU policies may be democracies' best hope for sound governance in the immediate term.

But only if they can be honest about the threats.

Author bio

Kristine Berzina is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Securing Democracy in German Marshall Fund Brussels office. Nad'a Kovalcikova is program manager, Lindsay Gorman is a Washington-based fellow.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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