TikTok owner ByteDance distributed pro-China messages to Americans, former employees say

While TopBuzz never discussed these policies publicly, at least one former ByteDance employee who worked at TopBuzz alluded to them on LinkedIn, saying he was “responsible for managing content within the platform according to Chinese government policies “. The former employee declined to speak to BuzzFeed News.

In March 2020, the Interception reported that TikTok moderators were also ordered to censor videos that harmed China’s “national honor” or discussed “state organs such as the police.” At the time, TikTok spokesperson Josh Gartner told the Intercept that “most” of the content moderation guidelines they were reporting had been broken or never implemented. Gartner declined to clarify whether the company still had a policy against “damaging national honor” or videos about police. ByteDance did not respond to a follow-up question from BuzzFeed News about whether such a rule was established or remains in place today.

Seven former ByteDance employees also described an effort by the company to delete and republish content from other sources, including YouTube videos and journalism from major newspapers and magazines, allegedly without those sources’ permission.

Two of the employees recalled the company attributing scraped content to fake words, and one said the made-up names often sounded like “stripper names.” As BuzzFeed News reported earlier this year, ByteDance also posted scraped content without the creators’ knowledge or permission on another of its short-form video apps: a TikTok predecessor called Flipagram.

Five former employees say ByteDance tried to negotiate licensing partnerships with some publishers, including the New York Times and ProPublica. But three of those people said the company also sometimes deleted content from licensed publishers before licenses were obtained or after they expired. When reached for comment, Jordan Cohen, a representative for the New York Times, confirmed that TopBuzz had republished their stories without a license and were sent a cease and desist order, which they complied with. Alexis Stephens, a representative for ProPublica, said the organization was not aware of any misappropriation of ProPublica journalism by TopBuzz. When reached for comment, a representative for BuzzFeed Inc. said they were not aware of any misuse of their content on the app.

YouTube did not respond to a request for comment by press time. ByteDance did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about publishing content from news publishers without permission.

Six former employees also claimed the company used the trimmed data to experiment with training its algorithms to write articles automatically, without the need for human reporters. On LinkedIn, another former employee who worked at TopBuzz and was based in Beijing described creating “templates for automated story writing by AI bots.” That former employee did not respond to a request for an interview. ByteDance did not comment on allegations of using scraped data to train AI models to write news articles.

Former employees also described persistent content quality issues in the app along with ByteDance’s decisions to prioritize engagement, and thus profits, over accuracy. Six of them described frustrated efforts by US staff to reduce the amount of hyper-partisan content and fake news on the app. A February 2018 edition for Technode, globalization consultant Elliott Zaagman also claimed that TopBuzz sent push notifications containing fake news, including fake headlines about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore winning an election he lost and Yoko Ono he had an affair with Hillary Clinton.

In September 2018, the company Removed nearly 2.7 million pieces of content, acknowledging they violated the platform’s “community standards and guidelines,” but employees said clicks and low-quality content persisted on the app long after that time .

For example, a screenshot of the app reviewed by BuzzFeed News showed that just eight days after the mass removal of content, TopBuzz sent a push notification to users that read: “When your tongue touches the cervix repeatedly.”

In interviews, several of the former employees compared TopBuzz’s problems to those of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which also struggled with a proliferation of misinformation and hyper-partisan content between 2015 and 2020.

But according to five of the former employees, ByteDance went further than other platforms in at least one important way: They claim that it not only distributed and recommended divisive content posted by others, but also sometimes created that content. The five former employees allege that teams in New York, Los Angeles and Beijing were tasked with writing Quora-like questions to their users as a way to encourage more engagement with the app. One former employee recalled being asked to write questions about “cops and African-Americans,” describing the questions as “race-baiting.” Another described them as “a dog whistle”. ByteDance did not comment on allegations that it instructed staff to write polarizing questions into the app.

ByteDance’s embrace of politically divisive content on TopBuzz contrasts with its more recent approach to content on TikTok. In recent days, as lawmakers like Sens. Ted Cruz, Mark Warner and Marco Rubio have continued to raise concerns about Chinese influence over TikTok, the company has sought to assuage concerns that it could influence civic discourse by emphasizing that TikTok is primarily used for entertainment, rather than political conversation. ByteDance it also increased its lobbying spending in the US by 130% in the second quarter, with a focus on, among other things, an antitrust bill, online privacy bills and a defense spending bill.

When asked by CNN’s Brian Stelter whether TikTok could be used to influence the commercial, cultural or political behavior of Americans, Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of public policy for the Americas, said: “We are not the place ideal for politics.” He acknowledged that the app was “a place for free expression,” but continued, “The main thing people come and use TikTok for is entertainment and lighthearted, fun content.”

Despite this characterization, BuzzFeed News recently reported that TikTok now serves as the primary search engine for many younger users, and its popularity has made it a bigger and bigger part of ours civic and political ecosystem.

Brandon Silverman, former CEO of tech giant CrowdTangle’s transparency tool (which was later bought by Facebook), told BuzzFeed News that even today, the app “has a lot of dance videos and cat videos , what we don’t want to do is look back after the midterms, or after 2024, and realize that it’s also become a really important part of our political and civic information ecosystem.”

Segal, director of the Council on Foreign Relations, meanwhile, said TikTok will have an uphill battle to assure US lawmakers that its algorithms will not be “gamed for Chinese interests.”

Asked what the company could do to regain the trust of regulators, he said: “I don’t know how they can do that in this hybrid structure where ByteDance still has a significant say.”

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