Canadian Mainstream Media Launches Another Volley of TikTok Conspiracy Theories

After CSIS said that TikTok should not be used by Canadians, Canada’s Mainstream media pushed a new round of conspiracy theories about the app.

Trust in the mainstream media, in recent years, has hit rock bottom. While the mainstream media has a common response that it’s all the conspiracy theorists fault on social media, a major source of the problem has long been the collapsing quality of journalism over the years. Some of it can be attributed to business related trends such as huge waves of layoffs, reducing the ranks of journalists, but editorial decisions to trade fact-based journalism for pushing messaging that reflects their own business decisions also plays a role in this as well.

We have been witnessing first hand how much fact based journalism and basic journalistic integrity has been thrown completely out the window. This was found in the Bill C-18 link tax debate where the media pushed what we called Big Lie 1.0 that said that Meta steals news content from publishers without compensation. This myth was routinely debunked here and elsewhere, pointing out, among other things, that scraping of news content doesn’t happen and that publishers are the ones that post their links on the Meta platforms in the first place. Repeatedly debunking this myth did little to dissuade the mainstream media and some of their hardcore supporters from pushing this lie, however, as that myth occasionally gets pushed even to this day.

When Meta made it clear that they would simply drop news links, the conspiracy theories were replaced by a new conspiracy theory we dubbed Big Lie 2.0. That was the myth that Meta is censoring the news and stopping people from accessing news entirely. This myth was quickly and repeatedly debunked by simply pointing out that people can still access the news websites directly. Meta doesn’t have some magical super power to stop people from reading the news. Never has, never will. Again, while the facts have been clear this was a fabricated talking point, media companies pushed this conspiracy theory for quite some time anyway as if to say, “Yeah, we’re lying, but we don’t care. We’ll continue to lie to the bitter end.”

Things got so bad in that debate, the media (along with the government) went so far as to even cross the line of basic human morality and decency. During last years deadly wildfire season, the government and the mainstream media pushed the conspiracy theory that Meta blocked news links as a direct response to the Yellowknife wildfires. It’s worth repeating that people died in those wildfires and the behaviour of trying to turn a deadly natural disaster into a political opportunity was abhorrent. We, of course, debunked the conspiracy theory by pointing out the decision to block news links happened long before the evacuations took place. That didn’t stop the Liberal government from attempting to rehash that conspiracy theory last week when he argued that Meta is endangering people’s lives… over a law that he passed that forced Meta to make this decision. At least the media had the decency to not run with that story this time around, so that’s something.

Of course, the media’s lies about the Online News Act (what Bill C-18 is known as today) is merely a symptom of a much larger problem when it comes to their coverage of anything technology related. As we noted, the media has pushed other conspiracy theories about a wide range of technology topics. This includes pushing conspiracy theories about how video games are turning children into digital addicts, that the Online Streaming Act is simply a part of making “Big Tech” pay their fair share, that the decline of ad revenues in the mainstream media is solely the fault of social media, and a host of so-called “trends” that were never actually a thing to make social media in general look bad.

A simple explanation for why the media routinely pushes lies about technology in general is the fact that they generally view technology as a competitor to their business model. Things like video games, social media, and smaller news websites pull attention of potential viewers away from them, so they feel that they need to attack these other mediums in response. They know they are losing viewers and, at the same time, they more often then not refuse to adapt their business model to respond to the digital age because the last thing they want to do is spend money on such adaptations. So, instead, they push laws to maintain the status quo of the 70’s and earlier while at the same time try to spend as little money as possible investing in their efforts to improve their product. Badmouthing others is the cheapest way they can accomplish what they consider are their goals.

One of the ways that their adversarial relationship with technology has manifested comes in the form of attacks on social media platform, TikTok. One conspiracy theory that was pushed was that TikTok has been completely taken over by Hamas terrorism propaganda videos. That conspiracy theory was posted on the National Post. Now, a cursory look at what is target=”_blank”>popular on TikTok quickly dispels that with the top 3 trends, as of this writing, being Billie Eilish, Animal, and Animals.

With that conspiracy theory falling flat, the mainstream media got a helping hand thanks to recent comments by CSIS, a Canadian spy organization. In an interview on the CBC, the head of that spy organization urged Canadians to stop using TikTok because the platform is part of China’s overall political strategy. Here’s a report on that:

In some of his most hawkish comments to date, the head of Canada’s intelligence agency is warning Canadians — including teenagers — against using the wildly popular video app TikTok.

“My answer as director of [the Canadian Security Intelligence Service] is that there is a very clear strategy on the part of the government of China … to be able to acquire … personal information from anyone around the world,” said CSIS director David Vigneault in an interview with CBC’s The House airing Saturday.

“As an individual, I would say that I would absolutely not recommend someone have TikTok.”

Vigneault said it’s “very clear” from the app’s design that data gleaned from its users “is available to the government of China.”

“Most people can say, ‘Why is it a big deal for a teenager now to have their data [on TikTok]?’ Well in five years, in 10 years, that teenager will be a young adult, will be engaged in different activities around the world,” he told host Catherine Cullen.

“If you are, for whatever reason, getting in the crosshairs of the [People’s Republic of China], they will have a lot of information about you.”

The comments essentially repeats the unfounded rumours and speculation that China has direct access to everyone’s data thanks to TikTok and is using the app for a massive foreign interference campaign. As we earlier pointed out, US intelligence agencies were asked to provide evidence that the app was harvesting people’s personal information for the Chinese government and that China was manipulating the app for foreign interference purposes. In response, US intelligence came up empty-handed, saying that this was all based on hypotheticals and speculation. To date, no evidence of either allegation has come to light proving these allegations. If anything, TikTok is actually heavily restricted in China more than anything else.

Still, that didn’t stop the mainstream media from airing a barrage of conspiracy theories against the app. In the video that was published along with the article, there was footage of an interview with Stephanie Carvin who was keyed as a former national security analyst. In the leadup to the comments, the reporter in the video said how “experts” are warning that China can use TikTok for the purposes of data mining, hacks, and blackmail. How TikTok could lead to hacks is a complete mystery, yet the reporter regurgitated that talking point without citing any evidence to support that claim.

Carvin, who appeared right up after that lead up, claimed that China could collect all of the video’s uploaded by users and use AI to clone their voice for nefarious purposes. Such a claim is worthy of a massive facepalm. Even if China were doing that, nothing would technically stop China from using other social media platforms to record and train AI for the same platform. What’s stopping China from using Facebook or Youtube for that purpose? Really, nothing. So, the claim that TikTok is uniquely threatening in that regard is completely absurd. Obviously, the concern is completely fabricated.

Still, that wasn’t the only absurd claims that the CBC aired. On Friday, the CBC interviewed another so-called “expert” who made multiple obviously bogus claims about the app. In that interview, the “expert” claimed that TikTok has access to the entire contents of your computer, allowing China to download everything for their own nefarious purposes. That “expert” then went on to say how TikTok also has access to your webcam and microphone, allowing China to remotely activate and record everything that is happening in the room as well. The claims, of course, are completely laughable. If that was actually happening, the security community would’ve detected such actions years ago. Those concerns would be amplified by digital rights organizations because they care deeply about privacy issues as well. People like me would be rightfully upset and calling Tiktok out on such activities. Yet, somehow, the entire security community magically had no knowledge of this and some random person appearing on a program had this magical insider knowledge and is warning everyone about it. Naturally, he had zero evidence to back up those conspiracy theories. Simply put, all of that is obviously not happening.

The person interviewed then went on to proclaim that this fight with TikTok is really a battle for your mind. Essentially, he said that the Chinese government is trying to conquer your mind so that you will be forced to do their bidding at the expense of your own country. Again, those allegations were backed up by precisely zero evidence even though something like that would be trivial to prove.

Probably the worst part of that interview was the fact that the journalist conducting that interview simply nodded in agreement as if everything he said made total sense (even though it was obviously complete nonsense). There was no questions of how he knew these things or what evidence there was to support these wild accusations. Just a general attitude of “if it makes TikTok look bad, then we must present it as factual information”.

Of course, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, echoed CSIS comments and urged Canadians to do what they said. In a separate Global News story, there were an additional inaccuracy:

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians should pay attention after the director of Canada’s spy agency called TikTok a threat, but that he is waiting to see how the company responds to American efforts to make the app safer.

I don’t know where Global gets their information, but they obviously need better sources. What does the report mean by “American efforts to make the app safer”? Heck if I know. The report never elaborated on what it meant by that. In all likelihood, it was worded that way to try and imply guilt on Tiktok’s part when there isn’t any.

So, to correct Global News, TikTok has made many efforts to show the US government that the app is safe. Yet, the US government simply refused those invitations. Then, Joe Biden signed the TikTok bill ban into law. TikTok responded by filing a lawsuit on first amendment grounds. Some argued that TikTok isn’t protected by the first amendment, but that argument was gutted when American TikTok creators filed a separate lawsuit, arguing that the ban violates their first amendment rights. While some worry that the right wing activist controlled Supreme Court might complicate matters, that is basically where we stand today.

CTV also published accusations levelled against TikTok in a recent report as well:

Moncton-based cybersecurity expert Scott Beck has warned of the privacy and data issues with foreign apps like TikTok, and believes many users don’t understand the extent to what information they are giving away when they download software like this.

“I’ve been speaking out against using TikTok for a while now, but the problem is it’s really fun to use and it can be very addictive,” said Beck. He says its time we have a conversation about the privacy risks, so everyone is aware.

“The fact that CSIS is now sounding the alarm should give everyone pause to stop and think,” said Beck. “What is CSIS been seeing in data?

Again, you see huge allegations against TikTok. Once again, all of this is backed by no evidence. Just talking heads screaming “TikTok BAD!!!! eleventy one one”. The video that came with that report only offered an interview with a random person who said that they deleted the app and said that she “guesses” bad things are happening that she doesn’t know about and that it’s addicting to watch it – as if that really adds anything to the conversation at all.

The TikTok scaremongering was also repeated on other sources like Reuters as well.

Seriously, if Canada’s mainstream media wants to know why people distrust the media these days, it’s stunts like this that tell you exactly why. The attitude of “no conspiracy theory left behind, no matter how ridiculous” in their effort to try and make the platform look as bad as humanly possible in various facts optional screeds is as infuriating as the disinformation campaigns of Bill C-11 and Bill C-18 of last year.

To make matters worse, this isn’t even the first time the Canadian media has launched a barrage of hit pieces on the social media platform. Last month, the mainstream media openly lobbied Trudeau to have the app banned in Canada over similar conspiracy theories. That development was a followup to the initial wave of moral panic by the media back in March. Canada’s mainstream media has been gunning for a ban on the platform for months now and is coordinating to push volleys of hit pieces against the platform for some time. Every single volley, naturally, has zero evidence supporting their claims.

Some people out there might look at all of this and say that the Canadian government simply cares about your personal privacy. Yet, history with the Canadian government clearly shows otherwise. Clear back in 2018, the European privacy law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) became law. While initial reviews on it were mixed, it became clear in the weeks and months ahead that the law set a new global golden standard for protecting people’s personal information. The development occurred when the notorious Facebook/Cambridge analytica scandal hit which saw Russian foreign interference help elect then Donald Trump to the White House and also helped win the day in the notorious Brexit referendum. It was a massive data privacy scandal that shook the world at large, yet mysteriously, no one to this day talks about banning Facebook or Meta at all. In that case, the allegations of foreign interference and privacy violations were not only shown, but blatantly obvious.

The hope throughout it all was that the Canadian government would finally wake up and pass privacy reform to, among other things, give Canadian privacy commissioners the ability to fine companies for data breaches, negligence, and abusing people’s personal information. Yet, the Canadian government dragged their feet on privacy reform, slowwalking any bill that did get tabled to the point of such legislation dying on the orderpaper. To add insult to injury, the lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica was dismissed even as other countries levied heavy fines for a total of over a billion dollars.

After years of delay, the Canadian government finally introduced Bill C-27 – a bill that critics point out changed very little from the previous effort and is still generally a half baked effort to protect people’s personal information. Even after the bill was finally tabled, the bill was stalled and stalled some more. Even with massive high profile data breaches, the Canadian government continued to drag their feet on privacy reform, electing to hit the snooze button every time there was a massive scandal.

To make matters even more infuriating, there was a separate privacy reform effort shoehorned into a budget bill. That effort ultimately passed, but all it did was allow political parties to better access people’s personal information for election purposes.

All of this shows that Canadian politician’s don’t give a damn about your privacy rights. If it benefits themselves, then maybe. Otherwise, reforming privacy laws would interfere with the huge sums of money they and their political donors are currently making off of people’s personal information.

The frustrating aspect in all of this is that had politician’s got off their lazy butts and did something about privacy laws as far back as 2018, this TikTok debate would be a moot issue. If there were rules in place that everyone has to follow, and there were actual fines associated with violating these rules, then the government would be in a FAR better position to deal with TikTok. Investigations could happen, and if rules were found to be broken, the book could be thrown at them after. End of story. No controversy or fabricated media lies necessary. The same thing could be said with X/Twitter and Meta as well. So many problems would’ve been solved in all of this. The problem, however, is that the government chose not to fix any of these problems and are stuck with being flat footed even if there were privacy issues with TikTok.

Even if the Canadian government were to pursue a ban on TikTok (which is, sadly, entirely possible at this point), concerns about foreign interference and privacy won’t actually get addressed. What kind of data mining does TikTok do that isn’t done on Facebook or X/Twitter? What’s stopping international adversaries from buying huge silos of personal information from other sources? Nothing. What’s stopping international adversaries from using, say, Facebook for their foreign interference? Nothing. Heck, research from Microsoft is already showing that Chinese foreign interference operations are happening on Facebook and X/Twitter right now.

The bottom line is this: A TikTok ban solves nothing. What it does do is create a huge swath of problems for creators who use the platform for their careers as well as limit the choices of consumers to an even smaller group of large platforms. In that sense, it actually further cements the market dominance of “Big Tech”, handing a huge amount of power to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk. So, all we’re doing here is creating even bigger problems and making things worse, not better.

As for the Canadian media, I think it goes without saying that they need to do better. What was on display here is a clear dereliction of duty. Point to any research that validates any of these claims, find evidence, do basic fact checking, research the actual technology you are reporting on. Basic research behind these stories would’ve immediately raised red flags about many of the claims that have been circulating. Clearly, however, reporters are not doing their job and it is leading to even more misinformation on this debate. It’s annoying to me because now I have to sit here and clean up the mess they created afterwards by doing what I can to set the record straight. The level of unprofessional behaviour I’ve been seeing in these reports is just exasperating. Sadly, I don’t even think we’ve even come close to seeing the end of these wild conspiracy theories on top of it all. As a result, I guess I’ll end up having to regularly debunk these eye rolling claims moving forward.

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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