After one year during which lawmakers on Capitol Hill, federal regulators, and the Pentagon all intensified their scrutiny of TikTok, the social media platform owned by a Chinese company, the popularity of the app among American consumers has only grown. An article in The Wall Street Journal recently described the platform as the “most habit forming social app out there,” while Vox recently declared the Washington Post TikTok account to now be an “unofficial campaign stop” for the 2020 presidential hopefuls.
The American fixation with TikTok, however, tells only part of a broader story about Chinese efforts to shape the global information architecture through using popular social media platforms. Beijing is fundamentally exploiting imbalances between the information environments of China and democracies to advance its geopolitical agenda. Indeed, the virality of some of the Chinese social media apps has allowed Beijing to quietly export its model of surveillance and censorship, as American platforms are increasingly difficult to access within Chinese borders. During the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong last year, the Chinese censorship machine hummed at full throttle as Tencent suspended the accounts of WeChat users, including in the United States, who had criticized Beijing.
Beijing has also leveraged the relative openness of American social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, for its strategic messaging and propaganda efforts. Even Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter, as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened its own official Twitter account last month. After Twitter decided to remove more than 900 accounts and suspended 200,000 more originating from China that sought to discredit the protests in Hong Kong, Beijing flipped the script, accusing American platforms of censoring legitimate views that are held by Chinese people.
As Beijing executes a more aggressive global social media strategy, the United States should coordinate closely with similarly minded countries and social media companies to backstop the integrity, transparency, and competitiveness of their own platforms. This certainly requires Congress to increase pressure on American social media companies for much more thorough and honest accounting of state directed influence activities on their platforms. But the federal government efforts should not stop here.
Consumers need a clearer understanding of how Beijing is using social media apps owned by Chinese companies, as well as American platforms, to learn, censor, and misinform. Our senior American government officials could, for instance, take to social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube to explain why Chinese influence and censorship activities on American and Chinese platforms threaten our democracies.
The federal government should also work with the private sector to raise consumer awareness about software solutions designed to guard against the spread of false information on American platforms. Some programs which alert social media users to instances of disinformation are already under development or available on a limited scale. The Duke video fact checking tool is one example of a browser extension under development that is intended to provide live fact checking of television information. As these tools become more effective, the federal government could require that prominent browsers include them as extensions enabled by default.
Social media platforms will continue to be an important vector by which information is consumed and disseminated within countries and around the world. The United States should not only adopt defensive efforts in the near term, but should also make investments in sustaining the integrity of American platforms and an information environment unfettered by state censorship, data harvesting, and false content pushing in the long term.
These investments could include an improved school civics curriculum that promotes digital literacy and critical thinking regarding information consumption. The United States could also jumpstart innovation for the scalable solutions to combat the spread of false information across social media platforms. In addition to promoting existing solutions, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency should organize a “Disinformation Hackathon” for innovators in the United States and ally countries to foster innovation to combat state sponsored information operations on social media. Teams across sectors could advance new solutions by leveraging open government data sets and open source information from platforms.
The openness of American social media platforms is indeed a significant asset, especially when it is contrasted with the tightening chokehold that Beijing has on its information environment. As Chinese technology and social media companies gain a foothold in democracies around the world, American efforts to promote resilience, both at home and abroad, should begin with equipping consumers with a far more precise understanding of how Beijing is using popular social media platforms to censor, surveil, and erode truth amid the global informational contest with the United States.
Kristine Lee is a fellow with the Asia Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. Christopher Estep is a digital communications specialist with the Center for a New American Security in Washington. This column is based on their recent policy brief on the issue.