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It’s time to ban TikTok for the sake of our democracy and security

(Alamy)

3 min read

For all the wrong reasons, China has been in the news again. On the back of a hack and theft of Ministry of Defence data, accompanied by espionage and cyber-attacks, MI5 briefed vice-chancellors that university research programmes are at risk from malign and hostile Chinese actors.

Home Office ministers then told the Lords that opioids made in Chinese laboratories, hundreds of times stronger than heroin, and flooding Western countries, had, over the past year, been responsible for 100 British deaths; a new opium war on British streets. And, in the United States, President Joe Biden last month signed into law a bill that enables the banning of Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok. 

All these things – along with Hikvision surveillance cameras now being removed from ‘sensitive sites’, and belated decisions on Chinese entanglement in our telecommunications – are interconnected. So, too, is evidence of transnational repression of Chinese diaspora. Together, they represent a threat to democracy and cut to the chase of national security priorities.

TikTok’s potential as a tool for advancing CCP influence in both domestic and foreign affairs is phenomenal

In advancing its hegemonic ambitions, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) uses companies such as ByteDance (which owns TikTok) to act as compliant arms of the state, serving its ambition, following its orders. The CCP’s systematic subversion of liberal democracies runs in parallel with its military alliance, forged with dictators in Russia, Iran and North Korea.

On the face of it, TikTok may seem like a fringe issue, but President Biden understands how TikTok is used by the CCP to promote its influence the world over. TikTok is complicit in fuelling the spread of misinformation, enabled by its design, an algorithm optimised for engagement rather than accuracy, and inadequate moderation measures. Its content amplifies polarisation, is susceptible to disinformation campaigns, and threatens the integrity of public discourse. 

TikTok also stands accused of aiding CCP censorship, in disseminating state propaganda, and suppressing content deemed ‘politically sensitive’. And by signing agreements with the Ministry of Public Security’s Press and Propaganda Bureau, ByteDance actively promotes the influence of police departments nationwide, including in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

TikTok’s potential as a tool for advancing CCP influence in both domestic and foreign affairs, including interference in democratic elections and exacerbating societal divisions, is phenomenal. This should alarm us all. 

Take TikTok’s ability to sway voters. In 2022, TikTok was used to influence the US midterm elections. This year, in Taiwan, Chinese government-related accounts and generative artificial intelligence were used to target specific individuals, to push fake videos, to use third-party and other data to micro-target messages and influence campaigns.

In an election year, this direct threat to British democracy and to human rights is the subject of a new inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). It will need to consider how the United Kingdom might enforce its disinformation rules against ByteDance to mitigate election interference. The JCHR must also reflect on how best to uphold citizens’ right to data protection and ask why TikTok is banned on government devices (and in Parliament since 2023) but has not yet been considered, as in the US, to present a risk to wider national interests. Evidence suggests that TikTok allows access to sensitive user data from outside of China by employees in the People’s Republic. Compilation data, including metadata, user behaviour patterns and biometric identifiers, can be used to create detailed user profiles with the potential to influence political dynamics.

The government should deal with the risk of insecure data transfer by incorporating Lord Bethell’s amendment to the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill. The national security dangers that TikTok poses cannot be denied. By aligning our response with that of our allies and by implementing robust measures, we should send a message to Beijing: our internal affairs and democratic rights are off limits to CCP interference. 

 

David Alton, crossbench peer

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