As US Intelligence Admits TikTok Threats are Purely Hypothetical, US Accused of Using TikTok to Manipulate China

The US never had actual evidence of TikTok being a threat to the US, but they apparently did authorize using TikTok to influence Chinese politics.

Last week, I noted that the hysteria over TikTok might be seeping across the border into Canada. It was a disappointing development that has only gradually become worse. Some in broadcast media have been wringing their hands, asking whether or not everyone should delete the TikTok app for being some sort of Chinese spy machine or a tool for the Chinese government to manipulate the elections.

It’s worth pointing out that the media in Canada have been doing this with absolutely no evidence to support the theory. Out of all the reports I’ve seen or read on the subject, none of them brought forth any actual evidence that this was going on. Instead, it was always just based on assumptions, rumours, and conjecture. A bulk of that seems to be based off just assuming that the American government has some sort of intelligence on this subject and the media just blindly ran with it.

The story has shown, once again, that the mainstream media has well and truly abandoned basic principles of real journalism. If there is no actual evidence put forth to prove such a wild claim, then you probably shouldn’t run with it. Best case scenario, you simply run a story saying that there are accusations, but point out that there is no evidence supporting it at this time, prompting you to look deeper into the story. This is especially true if this is on a subject you know little about. In this case, the mainstream media knows very little about technology (as clearly demonstrated during the Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 debates).

Instead, the mainstream media acted as though it was a foregone conclusion that TikTok was a vehicle for the Chinese government to collect huge troves of personal information and use that information to manipulate elections on a grand scale. As we are learning today, that act of jumping to conclusions has now bitten the mainstream media. A report from The Intercept is showing that US intelligence was asked about the threats posed by TikTok. In short? It’s just based purely on hypotheticals on their part:

The purported threat of TikTok to U.S. national security has inflated into a hysteria of Chinese spy balloon proportions, but the official record tells a different story: U.S. intelligence has produced no evidence that the popular social media site has ever coordinated with Beijing. That fact hasn’t stopped many in Congress and even President Joe Biden from touting legislation that would force the sale of the app, as the TikTok frenzy fills the news pages with empty conjecture and innuendo.

In interviews and testimony to Congress about TikTok, leaders of the FBI, CIA, and the director of national intelligence have in fact been careful to qualify the national security threat posed by TikTok as purely hypothetical. With access to much of the government’s most sensitive intelligence, they are well placed to know.

Typical is an interview CIA Director William Burns gave to CNN in 2022, where he said it was “troubling to see what the Chinese government could do to manipulate TikTok.” Not what the Chinese government has done, but what it could do.

What China could do turns out to be a recurring theme in the statements of the top national security officials.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said during a 2022 talk at the University of Michigan that TikTok’s “parent company is controlled by the Chinese government, and it gives them the potential [emphasis added] to leverage the app in ways that I think should concern us.” Wray went on to cite TikTok’s ability to control its recommendation algorithm, which he said “allows them to manipulate content and if they want to [emphasis added], to use it for influence operations.”

In the same talk, Wray three times referred to the Chinese government’s “ability” to spy on TikTok users but once again stopped short of saying that they do so.

“They also have the ability to collect data through it on users which can be used for traditional espionage operations, for example,” Wray said. “They also have the ability on it to get access, they have essential access to software devices. So you’re talking about millions of devices and that gives them the ability to engage in different kinds of malicious cyber activity through that.”

In testimony before the House Homeland Security Committee in November 2022, Wray was even more circumspect, stressing that the Chinese government could use TikTok for foreign influence operations but only “if they so chose.” When asked by Rep. Diana Harshbarger, R-Tenn., if the Chinese government has used TikTok to collect information about Americans for purposes other than targeted ads and content, Wray only could acknowledge that it was a “possibility.”

“I would say we do have national security concerns, at least from the FBI’s end, about TikTok,” Wray said. “They include the possibility that the Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm which could be used for foreign influence operations if they so chose.”

The lack of evidence is not for lack of trying, as Wray alluded to during the same hearing. When asked by Harshbarger what is being done to investigate the Chinese government’s involvement in TikTok, Wray replied that he would see whether “any specific investigative work … could be incorporated into the classified briefing I referred to.”

The FBI, when asked by The Intercept if it has any evidence that TikTok has coordinated with the Chinese government, referred to Wray’s prior statements — many of which are quoted in this article. “We have nothing to add to the Director’s comments,” an FBI spokesperson said.

So, there’s the evidence – or rather, a complete lack of it. I’ve been asking around for a long time about whether anyone has any evidence that shows China is actively collecting information or influencing elections through TikTok. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone bring forth evidence to prove it. It was all based on hypothetical threats.

Yet, as the conspiracy theories about all of this begins to unravel, another separate report suggests that US intelligence was given the authorization to use Chinese social media platforms to try and undermine the Chinese government. From TechDirt:

Speaking of all that: what interesting timing to have Reuters break the news that the Trump administration gave the go ahead on a covert program by the CIA to try to use social media inside China to turn the public against the government and cause chaos.

Two years into office, President Donald Trump authorized the Central Intelligence Agency to launch a clandestine campaign on Chinese social media aimed at turning public opinion in China against its government, according to former U.S. officials with direct knowledge of the highly classified operation.

Three former officials told Reuters that the CIA created a small team of operatives who used bogus internet identities to spread negative narratives about Xi Jinping’s government while leaking disparaging intelligence to overseas news outlets. The effort, which began in 2019, has not been previously reported.

I am also suddenly reminded of how the US government ran this big campaign for a few years about how no one should use Chinese networking equipment from companies like Huawei. This is despite the fact that a comprehensive White House report could find no evidence of nefarious behavior. Oh, but also, how some of the Ed Snowden docs revealed that the US government was actually installing secret backdoors in Cisco networking equipment to spy on people elsewhere?

Of course, there are a few different ways to look at this. One argument is that “well, we’re doing this, so we know that they must be too, and that justifies the US’s actions to try to cut them off.” And that would be maybe more compelling if there were more serious evidence that any of this actually works and that it doesn’t look absolutely ridiculous when it inevitably leaks out later.

The other way of looking at it is that the US comes off as a bunch of hypocrites who repeatedly squander whatever moral high ground they have on these arguments. As Farrell and Finnemore highlighted in that piece a decade ago, US foreign policy and the soft power it traditionally wielded relied heavily on (1) US politicians believing in the principles of freedom and openness we espoused, (2) our allies being able to back us up on those claims, and (3) our adversaries looking weak and pathetic in trying to go up against those principles.

But with each revelation of the US doing exactly what they accuse others of doing, all of that falls apart. US politicians making such claims look ever less sincere. Our allies can no longer continue to claim the moral high ground with a straight face. And our adversaries use our own stupid policies to justify their even worse ones.

This is quite the blow to the theory of TikTok being a massive threat to the United States. I had good reason to ask for evidence that this was going on first. The repeated lack of evidence was highly noticeable to me and, as it turns out, there was no evidence backing up these wild claims. The rumours and speculation was exacerbated by media companies who were desperate to make anything everything related to the internet look as horrible as possible and were willing to run with any story possible to try and complete that image.

Yet, even as the conspiracy theories begin to unravel, Canadian media seems content with running pieces filled with moral panic. Take, for instance, this Globe and Mail piece:

TikTok itself demonstrated its power to access to millions of screens last week. In the scenario Mr. Wray depicted, China could use TikTok to sow further chaos. This risk makes its ownership unacceptable for the U.S., Canada and NATO.

China itself recognizes the risks of foreign influence on its own citizens, and is moving to ban foreign software, aiming for a total shift to domestic providers by 2027 under its “Delete America” policy. It knows how such technology could be used against its own interests, having designed its own technology to do just that in the West.

Canada needs to fully back our closest ally on this issue, and Mr. Champagne should ask cabinet to ban TikTok if it remains under China’s control. Canadian TikTok content creators see the U.S as their paramount market, so they will also prefer to be on the U.S. version of the platform that will likely emerge after a sale.

Here’s another scare piece by the Toronto Star:

A proposed nationwide ban of the popular social media platform has grabbed headlines in the U.S. as legislation makes its way through Congress. That has renewed scrutiny on TikTok in Canada after the social media app was removed from government-issued devices nearly a year ago.

Despite those national security concerns, nearly 76 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 were on TikTok, according to a 2022 survey from Toronto Metropolitan University’s Social Media Lab.

With widespread use among young Canadians, how would a ban in the U.S. affect users up north? And could Canada follow suit?

The implication of a ban could be that TikTok users are somehow putting Canada’s national security at risk, Bednar added, but data security is a bigger, and separate, issue.

“Really there’s just this problem with privacy and information and who it’s being shared with,” she said.

The pieces seem downright laughable at this point now that the truth about this whole situation has come out. Even as the evidence shows that the hysteria over TikTok is simply not grounded in evidence, I strongly suspect that the large media companies will continue to run scare pieces about TikTok as if it was a foregone conclusion that TikTok is a national security threat despite not accompanying that with any real credible evidence.

What’s more, there will be those out there who argue that “Big Tech” has become too powerful and is in need of competition cheering this effort to ban TikTok on, thereby eliminating the competition of “Big Tech” to their thunderous applause. You really couldn’t make all of this up, could you?

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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