Solomon: Blockbuster Report Reveals China's Insidious Plans for TikTok


News cycles work in interesting ways, often shining a light where parties influencing the news would least like to have it aimed.

That’s the case this week with new revelations about the role of TikTok in a massive Chinese government misinformation campaign surrounding the Beijing Olympics and the disappearance of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai.

The Women’s Tennis Association recently took a $1 billion hit by pulling all of its tournaments and operations out of China. This was in response to Peng’s disappearance after she accused a former Chinese government official of sexual abuse. This week, the International Tennis Federation, the governing body that oversees lower-level professional men’s and women’s tournaments, canceled all 40 events scheduled in China for 2022.

Yet the organization that runs hugely popular and profitable men’s tennis, the Association of Tennis Professionals, has done nothing.

The International Olympic Committee, concerned only with ensuring the 2022 Beijing Olympics happen no matter what, allowed itself to be a pawn of the Chinese government by taking part in a staged videoconference with Peng. Even with the U.S. government citing humanitarian abuses in China as the reason for a diplomatic — but not athletic — boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the Games move forward.

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Last week, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted, “How can responsible U.S. leaders look at what has happened to international women’s tennis star Peng Shuai and conclude that our athletes will be safe inside Communist China’s borders?”

He later added, “We absolutely must boycott the games and send a clear message: the U.S. does not turn a blind eye to the CCP’s ongoing human rights violations, including genocide.”

How and why the Beijing Olympics are still moving forward is a mystery to many of us, which is why Monday’s blockbuster report by Open Secrets is so important.

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The report shows that the Chinese government hired an American consulting firm to recruit social media influencers on TikTok and other platforms “to drive viewership, mass awareness and premium content” for China.

“This is just the latest influence operation from China’s government and its state-run media entities, whose foreign agents have disclosed more than $170 million in spending on propaganda and lobbying in the U.S. since 2016,” Open Secrets reported.

Making Los Angeles-based TikTok the lynchpin of the Chinese government’s misinformation strategy makes perfect sense. Wildly popular in the U.S., TikTok is poised to earn well over $2 billion in 2021, up from $63 million in 2017. This exponential growth is justifiably a cause of concern for the many who feel that TikTok is little more than Chinese spyware and should not be used on moral and political grounds.

TikTok’s parent company is ByteDance, a massive Chinese company that will generate close to $50 billion in revenue in 2021. As CNBC reported in June, ByteDance has access to all of TikTok’s American user data. ByteDance drives both product development and strategic decision-making at TikTok, which has led cybersecurity experts to worry about the exact issues raised by Open Secrets this week.

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A fundamental concern is that the Chinese government is using TikTok to spread propaganda and potentially exercise influence over users of the app. Remember, once you post something on TikTok, deleting it is just an illusion, as TikTok, ByteDance and the Chinese government can access and potentially leverage anything you post or have even looked at on the platform.

As Joshua Tucker, co-director of the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, noted in March, “Social media itself is neither inherently good nor bad for democracy, but it can be either depending on who is using it and for what ends.”

Tools such as TikTok, which are portrayed to users as simply neutral platforms, are particularly dangerous today.

“Ironically, the very same affordances that made social media useful for pro-democracy activists also make it a valuable tool for those who harbor anti-democratic sentiments in democratic societies,” Tucker said.

This is why the “where do we go from here” question isn’t an easy or pleasant one to answer. We are 52 days from the Beijing Olympics, and the U.S. and several of its allies have announced only a pointless and ineffective diplomatic boycott.

How many undiscovered campaigns have been launched through TikTok and other social media to influence how we think about the critically important issues surrounding China in 2022 and beyond? This question should make us very uncomfortable and cause us to second-guess the social media platforms on which we spend time and share content.

That’s something too few of us are willing to do, just as thinking about genocide in Xinjiang, the disappearance of a Chinese athlete who stood up to the Communist Party apparatus, or even the safety of our own Olympics athletes all seem to be less important than posting our next TikTok.

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A Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, Aron Solomon, JD, is the chief legal analyst for Esquire Digital and 24-7 Abogados. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Solomon has been featured in Forbes, CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, the Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo, ABA Journal,, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak and many other leading publications.