The platform also appears to be vulnerable to censorship and algorithmic manipulation. This month, a company executive openly said they had overridden the app’s algorithm to push content on TikTok, and the platform has been reported to suppress content from users with Down syndrome, autism, and other disabilities, as well as users deemed “poor or ugly.” The app’s moderators have also censored videos on Tiananmen Square and Tibetan independence, which means users in the US are presented with China’s version of the story. It’s these aspects that raise red flags for disinformation and cybersecurity experts.
“The things that keep me up at night with this are the more difficult things to understand—the aggregate, the larger picture, the propaganda—things that can be done at scale to move a whole population one or two ticks,” says Adam Marrè, a former FBI cyber special agent and the chief information security officer at Arctic Wolf, a cybersecurity company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, adding that “psychological models and the interactive nature” of apps like TikTok leave room for political manipulation as well.
Maureen Shanahan, the director of global corporate communications at TikTok, denied reports that the app censors information, saying: “TikTok does not allow the practices you claim, and anyone can go on the app today and find content that’s critical of the Chinese government.”
Whether the government’s concerns over censorship are enough to justify banning the service, or whether average users face an immediate risk, isn’t clear.
“I think it’s fair to say the conversation is driven by fear,” says Dakota Cary, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a consultant at Krebs Stamos Group, a cybersecurity consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “The core experience in this conversation is fear. Are we subject to influence that we don't know about? Is th...