TikTok’s recent silencing of conservative and pro-life voices is raising questions about whether the tech industry’s woke political culture is to blame — or whether the Chinese-owned company is doing the bidding of Beijing.
The latest target: Live Action President and founder Lila Rose, who said earlier this month that her TikTok account was permanently banned without explanation, mirroring the experiences of the Babylon Bee, Students for Life of America and Media Research Center TV.
The rash of cancellations has contributed to the unease surrounding TikTok, the short-video platform owned by Beijing-based ByteDance that has fueled national security and privacy concerns over China’s potential access to data on the app’s 1 billion users worldwide.
Gordon G. Chang, distinguished senior fellow at the Gatestone Institute, argued that the Chinese Communist Party “uses TikTok to spread its propaganda narratives.”
“TikTok’s suspension of several conservative-leaning sites is undoubtedly the result of a decision in the Chinese capital. It cannot be random,” Mr. Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China,” told The Washington Times.
TikTok did not respond to requests for comment by The Washington Times, but the company has pushed back against allegations of Chinese state interference in the past.
“We have made clear that TikTok has never shared user data with the Chinese government, nor censored content at its request,” TikTok said in a statement on Aug. 7, 2020, responding to the Trump administration’s attempt to shut down the app in the U.S.
That hasn’t stopped conservatives from making the Beijing connection. The Media Research Center unloaded on left-wing bias and the Chinese Communist Party after TikTok unplugged its MRCTV account without warning.
“TikTok is apparently easily triggered by conservative content that doesn’t serve the propaganda of its communist overlords,” said the Aug. 1 post on MRC’s NewsBusters blog.
TikTok’s bans on right-tilting sites appear to follow the same script. Accounts are frozen often without explanation or reference to specific videos. Appeals are rarely heeded. Efforts to establish contact with actual TikTok administrators go nowhere.
And yet accounts can be thawed as quickly as they were frozen. Live Action, Students for Life of America and MRCTV have all been slapped with “permanent” bans that were later lifted.
“Honestly, we get banned off and on all the time, and anecdotally, I note that they have a habit of doing it on Fridays,” said Students for Life spokesperson Kristi Hamrick. “I speculate it’s because people are more active on social media on the weekend.”
MRCTV managing editor Brittany Hughes said the entire process at TikTok “seems to be sort of random.”
“We’ve been permanently banned now three times, and we’re currently banned,” Ms. Hughes said. “They took one of them off I believe last March and turned it into a one-week suspension instead.”
MRCTV reported having videos censored on its TikTok account 45 times, with 42 of those occurring since January. Seven videos were reinstated after being appealed. One restored video was re-banned in what MRCTV called an example of the “incoherence of TikTok’s censorship operation.”
“They’ll ban you and then they’ll take down your videos, but they don’t actually send you a notice saying that this video violated this community guideline or policy,” Ms. Hughes said. “So we have no idea what actually tripped this this time, or frankly any of the other times.”
The Babylon Bee, the Christian conservative satirical site, was kicked off the platform without explanation last month, but so far the account has not been reinstated.
“No, nothing has changed,” said Bee CEO Seth Dillon. “We haven’t even been getting the option to appeal.”
— Live Action (@LiveAction) August 4, 2022
Live Action spokesperson Noah Brandt chalked up the bans to left-wing political bias.
“At least in America, I think [TikTok] is just controlled by pro-abortion liberal elites who are happy to shut down pro-life speech,” he said.
No human contact
TikTok is hardly the only social-media platform to be accused of targeting the right. Conservatives have long feuded with U.S.-based companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube over allegations of viewpoint discrimination.
TikTok’s posted “community guidelines” include prohibitions on “hateful conduct,” “hateful ideology” and “hateful misinformation” that are broad enough to cover a vast swath of advocacy-related content.
And at least one pro-choice account has run afoul of the guidelines: In May, TikTok suspended Ruth Sent Us after it was criticized for posting the alleged home addresses of the six conservative Supreme Court justices. The ban was removed a few days later.
At TikTok, as with other social-media giants, the suspensions appear to be triggered by videos that go viral.
In April, Students for Life said TikTok froze its account without warning and stripped off 35,000 followers after drawing a surge of traffic over a video showing campus debate between group President Kristan Hawkins and a pro-choice student.
Mr. Brandt said the Lila Rose suspension coincided with the group’s Justice for the Five campaign, referring to the five aborted fetuses allegedly taken by a pro-life activist from a clinic in Washington, D.C., that may have been old enough to have survived outside the womb.
“We are by far the biggest pro-life group on TikTok. We’ve had 17 million likes on the channel. Things go viral,” he said. “I’m sure the powers that be at TikTok would rather that didn’t happen.”
As far as Chinese influence goes, “You never know. Who knows what the TikTok American executives, what their ultimate aims and goals and relationships are to the PRC [People’s Republic of China]?” Mr. Brandt said.
Ms. Hughes said that Beijing and Moscow “like to do is to stir up dissent, however they can, in countries that they don’t like.”
As a result, “I would not be shocked if that were not part of a much bigger picture here that’s a lot less about somebody over on TikTok getting offended by something that we posted, and is more part of a global agenda,” she said.
Adding to the frustration is that conservative groups say it’s virtually impossible to reach an actual human being at TikTok.
Mr. Brandt said the group’s team was logging onto the Lila Rose account when “this screen popped up and said ‘your account has been banned, if you think this is a mistake you can submit an appeal.’ And we have heard nothing since.”
That was in April. There has been no response to her appeal. The platform also banned Live Action’s advertising content without giving a reason.
The pro-life group has tried to reach out to administrators at TikTok without success, a problem Mr. Brandt said could be the result of inadequate staffing.
“Maybe it’s because they’re a less mature company, or they haven’t been around as long, but with all the other social media companies, we know real human beings who work there. We can talk to them,” he said. “At TikTok, we do not have any human relationships, and I think it’s because their team is much, much, much smaller than at Facebook or Twitter.”
That bug may be more of a feature. Former U.S.-based TikTok employees described a culture of stress and secrecy in a May 6 article in the Wall Street Journal, as well as confusion resulting from the lack of an organization chart.
Last year, TikTok replaced interim CEO Vanessa Pappas in Los Angeles with permanent CEO Shou Zi Chew in Singapore, a move that the Journal said “further anchored its power base in the East.”
A Forbes investigation released Friday found that 300 current ByteDance and TikTok employees previously worked for Chinese state-owned media. A ByteDance spokesperson said the company bases its hiring decisions on the individual’s ability to do the job.
TikTok Communications posted a rebuttal last month after Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee tweeted that the “Chinese Communist Party has an ownership stake in ByteDance,” referring to a 2021 transaction.
“[A] Chinese state-owned enterprise has a 1% stake in a different ByteDance subsidiary called Beijing Douyin Information Service Limited, not in TikTok’s parent company,” tweeted TikTok Communications.
Too big to bail
Despite their reservations, conservative and pro-life groups said that ignoring TikTok isn’t an option.
“TikTok is important,” Mr. Brandt said. “It’s where young people are, and it’s by far the fastest-growing social media platform.”
Launched in 2016 in China under the name Douyin, TikTok was the most downloaded app globally in 2020 and 2021, with a user base that skews heavily in favor of the teen and young adult markets.
A Pew Research Center survey of U.S. teenagers released Thursday ranked TikTok as the second most popular social-media app for those ages 13-17, trailing only YouTube and leading Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook.
The poll found that 67% of those ages 13-17 said they have visited or used TikTok, and 16% say they do so “almost constantly.”
“TikTok has rocketed in popularity since its North American debut several years ago and now is a top social media platform for teens among the platforms covered in this survey,” said the center in its analysis.
Ms. Hughes said that MRCTV wrestled with whether to join TikTok, given its Chinese ownership, but ultimately decided that it was critical to bring the conservative message to a younger audience.
“I was hesitant for MRCTV to even get on TikTok in the first place,” she said. “We had a lot of discussions about that internally because it is an important platform. If that’s where all of the youth are and you’re trying to reach them, it’s important to go where they are.”
At the same time, she said, “I think TikTok is dangerous in its own right simply because of who they answer to.”
TikTok is already squarely on the U.S. radar. President Biden rescinded last year the Trump administration’s effort to ban Chinese-owned apps in the U.S., but the Commerce Department is reviewing a proposed rule to increase scrutiny of apps owned or controlled by foreign adversaries.
“My guess is that they [TikTok executives] are swamped with a potential ban of their own,” said James A. Lewis, senior vice president and program director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Mr. Chang said flatly that TikTok “should not be available in America.”
“It is illegally surveilling users and disseminating propaganda for a regime that considers the United States its enemy,” Mr. Chang said. “Moreover, Beijing does not allow American apps in China, so why do we allow Chinese apps here?”