An influential Australian think tank has labelled social media platform TikTok a "powerful political actor", with wider influence than other Chinese-owned platforms due to its large user base of non-Chinese users.
In a new report, TikTok and WeChat: Curating and controlling global information flows, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) is urging governments to launch legal investigations into the two companies should the censorship of political and social issues alleged by the report be breaking local laws.
Australia does not have freedom of speech legislation. However, it is party to seven core international human rights treaties, which contain freedom of opinion and expression as well as rights of equality and non-discrimination articles.
ASPI found TikTok has taken a "heavy-handed approach to content moderation", censoring topics such as LGBTQI issues and political issues such as Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence.
The globally popular video-sharing platform, owned by ByteDance, had nearly 700 million users worldwide as of July 2020. WeChat, a social media, messaging and payment app, is owned by Tencent.
ASPI is partly funded by Australia's Department of Defence and considered close to the country's security establishment. It received a research grant of $US250,000 ($343,000) from the US State Department, which was used towards compiling its report.
"Possessing and deploying the capability to covertly control information flows, across geographical regions, topics and languages, positions TikTok as a powerful political actor with a global reach," the new report said.
The offices of Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton have been contacted for comment.
"We believe that accountability and transparency are essential to facilitating trust with our community," a TikTok spokeswoman said. "As part of this, we’ve committed to making our moderation policies, algorithm and data security practices available to experts, which no other company in our space has been willing to do.
"As we’ve said before, TikTok user data is stored in the US and Singapore, with strict controls on employee access. We have never shared user information with the Chinese government, and wouldn't do so if asked."
The TikTok spokeswoman said the platform is committed to creating a fun, authentic and safe places for its users.
"Our policies and practices are informed by experts across the field and continually evolve to meet the needs of our vibrant community. We are deeply committed to inclusivity and proud that content celebrating our diverse community is among the most popular on TikTok."
TikTok's Australian operations will face a Senate Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media on September 25.
"Both Tencent and ByteDance, the companies that own and operate WeChat and TikTok, respectively, are subject to China’s security, intelligence, counter-espionage and cyber security laws. Internal Chinese Communist Party (CCP) committees at both companies are in place to ensure that the party’s political goals are pursued alongside the companies’ commercial goals," the ASPI report said.
"ByteDance CEO Zhang Yiming has stated on the record that he will ensure his products serve to promote the CCP’s propaganda agenda."
The ASPI report, authored by Fergus Ryan, Audrey Fritz and Daria Impiombato, said the Chinese state has long sought to control and shape the flow of information outside of China, including via WeChat.
"The meteoric growth of TikTok has now put the CCP in a position from which it can shape the information environment on a largely non Chinese-speaking platform – with the help of the highest valued start-up in the world and its opaque advanced AI-powered algorithm," the report concluded.
"Chinese party-state leverage over these companies is considerable, is exercised internally via CCP committees and is enforced by a suite of cyber security and intelligence laws. As Chinese companies, Tencent and ByteDance are not only required to participate in intelligence work, but they’re also legally mandated to promote CCP propaganda."
Intense international scrutiny
The report comes at a time when TikTok has been banned in India and US president Donald Trump has ordered ByteDance to sell or spin off its US operations within 90 days, citing national security concerns.
The report also recommends governments introduce transparent user data privacy and user data protection frameworks that apply to all social media and internet companies, from China and from other countries. It said if those companies refuse to comply, they should be banned.
In recent months TikTok has campaigned amid calls for a ban in Australia, including taking out full-page newspaper ads and billboards under the tagline "Don't make TikTok a political football".