Government warns of social media manipulation as TikTok faces backlash
The government has warned of the manipulation of information on social media platforms as viral video app TikTok faces a global backlash over security concerns.
Owned by Chinese company ByteDance, the mobile app has come under increased scrutiny in Australia after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week said he was looking at banning it over data and national security concerns following a similar ban in India.
TikTok has an estimated 1.6 million users in Australia who log on to upload and watch 15-second videos of users lip syncing and dancing.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald asked Attorney-General and acting Home Affairs Minister, Christian Porter about security concerns involving TikTok and he said the government was working to combat disinformation through social media.
"The Morrison government recognises social media can be a particularly effective tool in the manipulation of information," he said. "We are working with partners both internationally and domestically to share information and increase resilience to foreign interference in at-risk sectors, including disinformation through social media."
Last year leaked documents showed TikTok instructed its moderators to censor videos that mentioned Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence or the religious movement Falun Gong.
Dr Belinda Barnet, senior lecturer in media at Swinburne University of Technology, said it was "beyond doubt" that TikTok and its Chinese counterpart Douyin, which is also owned by ByteDance, contributed to misinformation.
"They engage in censorship and targeted misinformation campaigns to disrupt and hijack public debate," she said.
However TikTok's global transparency report which was published on Thursday failed to address these concerns, instead detailing how the platform removed almost 50 million videos globally in the second half of last year, mainly for depicting adult nudity and sexual activities.
Privacy is only mentioned once – with the report noting "TikTok offers a wide range of privacy settings that users can activate during account setup, or at any time" – and security is not covered at all.
The report details 500 legal requests for information from governments in 26 countries including two requests from Australia and six requests from Australian government agencies to remove content.
TikTok did not report any similar requests from the Chinese government and a spokesperson for TikTok said the app had not received any requests from the Chinese government for user information or to remove content.
"We do not and have not removed any content at the request of the Chinese government, and would not do so if asked," the spokesperson said.
TikTok Australia's general manager Lee Hunter has defended the security of data on the platform by pointing to the storing of TikTok Australia user data in Singapore and efforts to "minimise data access across regions".
However Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Mr Hunter's claims made it clear TikTok data was accessed in China.
"Reading between the lines this is a roundabout way of saying they are still sending some data to China," he said. "That makes a lot of sense because in order to update the app and improve the app, Beijing-based engineers will need to access some of the data being stored in the US and Singapore."
Mr Ryan said this was "particularly worrying" as China has a suite of national security laws that, in effect, remove any firewall between the user data and Chinese authorities.
"A company like Apple can publicly refuse the FBI access to an iPhone, that simply wouldn't happen in China and there is no evidence it has ever happened," he said.
Mr Ryan pointed to Article 7 of China's National Intelligence Law which states "Any organisation and citizen shall, in accordance with the law, support, provide assistance and co-operate in national intelligence work and guard the secrecy of any national intelligence work that they are aware of".
"In other words, if the Chinese government requested TikTok user data, the company would be required by law to assist them and then would be legally prevented from talking about it," Mr Ryan said.