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TikTok Takes Action Against Covert Campaign

Uncovering a Web of Influence: Response to Rival's Move, TikTok Nixes 284 Accounts After Meta's 9K Takedown
By Josefina Dipaolo
September 4, 2023

In a swift response to mounting concerns, TikTok has taken down 284 accounts that were part of a disinformation campaign originating from China. The campaign, which came to light after Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, exposed several accounts engaged in suspicious activities, raised questions about the role of social media platforms in preventing covert influence operations. This move marks a significant step toward enhancing transparency and accountability in the realm of online discourse.

Last week, Meta announced its successful shutdown of nearly 9,000 accounts linked to a Chinese political spam network. This network had been systematically targeting users across the globe, with a special focus on Australia. Operating across various platforms, including YouTube, Reddit, Pinterest, Medium, and more, the network aimed to sway opinions by posting favorable narratives about China and Xinjiang province while disparaging the US and its foreign policies, as well as critics of the Chinese government. Astonishingly, the operation extended even to platforms like TikTok, known for its short-form videos.

Meta's investigation brought to light the presence of this influence operation on TikTok, with videos promoting a skewed narrative on issues like forced labor in Xinjiang and the situation in Taiwan. Guardian Australia, after analyzing these videos, brought the questionable accounts to TikTok's attention. The swift response saw 284 accounts associated with the covert campaign being banned by TikTok for violating the platform's policy against such deceptive operations. TikTok, however, remained tight-lipped about the initial oversight in detecting these accounts, deferring to its counter-influence policy that aims to detect coordinated efforts to mislead the platform and its users.

While the removal of these accounts is seen as a positive move, experts believe TikTok should have acted more proactively. Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), noted that other major social media platforms have acknowledged similar covert operations linked to the Chinese state, urging TikTok to display similar transparency. ASPI, which has actively monitored such accounts on TikTok, expressed willingness to collaborate with the platform to prevent further incidents.

Albert Zhang, an ASPI analyst, echoed the sentiment, stressing the need for TikTok to emulate Meta's model of disclosure in combating state-backed influence operations. The demand for greater transparency and accountability reflects a broader call for social media platforms to play a more proactive role in safeguarding digital discourse.

TikTok's ban from Australian government devices earlier this year, along with similar measures in the UK and the US, underscores the concerns about its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Despite these controversies, TikTok continues to deny any affiliations with the CCP or its influence over platform content. As international debates on the platform's ownership and governance continue, it remains evident that digital platforms are increasingly entangled in complex geopolitical dynamics.

TikTok's response to the exposure of covert influence campaigns highlights the intricate challenges faced by social media platforms in maintaining a healthy digital environment. While the removal of accounts is a step in the right direction, the incident calls for greater vigilance and collaboration among platforms, governments, and independent organizations to ensure transparent and secure online spaces.

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