New data is suggesting at least some U.S. adversaries are taking advantage of the hugely popular TikTok video-sharing app for influence operations.
A report Thursday by the Alliance for Securing Democracy (ASD) finds Russia “has been using the app to push its own narrative” in its effort to undermine Western support for Ukraine.
“Based on our analysis, some users are engaging more with Russian state media than other, more reputable independent news outlets on the platform,” according to the report by the U.S.-based election security advocate that tracks official state actors and state-backed media.
“More TikTok users follow RT than The New York Times,” it said.
The ASD report found that as of March 22, there were 78 Russian-funded news outlets on TikTok with a total of more than 14 million followers.
It also found that despite a commitment from TikTok to label the accounts as belonging to state-controlled media, 31 of the accounts were not labeled.
Yet even labeling the accounts seemed to have little impact on their ability to gain an audience.
“By some measures, including the performance of top posts, labeled Russian state media accounts are reaching larger audiences on TikTok than other platforms,” the report said. “RIA Novosti‘s top TikTok post so far in 2023 has more than 5.6 million views. On Twitter, its top post has fewer than 20,000 views.”
The report on Russian state media’s use of TikTok comes as U.S. officials are again voicing concern about the potential for TikTok to be used for disinformation campaigns and foreign influence operations.
“Just a tremendous number of people in the United States use TikTok,” John Plumb, the principal cyber adviser to the U.S. secretary of defense, told members of a House Armed Services subcommittee, warning of “the control China may have to direct information through it” and use it as a “misinformation platform.”
“This provides a foreign nation a platform for information operations,” U.S. Cyber Command’s General Paul Nakasone added, noting that TikTok has 150 million users in the United States.
“One-third of the adult population receives their news from this app,” he said. “One-sixth of our children are saying they’re constantly on this app.”
TikTok, owned by China-based ByteDance, has sought to push back against the concerns.
“Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country,” TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew told U.S. lawmakers during a hearing last week.
“We do not promote or remove content at the request of the Chinese government,” he said, trying to downplay fears about the company’s data collection practices and Chinese laws that would require the company to share that information with the Chinese government if asked.U.S. lawmakers, intelligence and security officials, however, have their doubts.
The top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Marco Rubio, earlier this month warned that TikTok is “probably one of the most valuable surveillance tools on the planet.”
A day later, Cyber Command’s Nakasone told members of the House Intelligence Committee that TikTok is like a “loaded gun,” while FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that TikTok’s recommendation algorithm “could be used to conduct influence operations.”
“That’s not something that would be easily detected,” he added.