BuzzFeed News says that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, which is based in China, used a news app called TopBuzz to spread pro-China messages. Former employees of the English-language news aggregator told the publication that ByteDance told them to “pin” content that showed China in a good light or promoted the country to the top of the app. Reports say that they were even asked to show proof, like screenshots of the live content, that they had done what the company asked. By 2018, TopBuzz had 40 million active users every month.
Some of the content that the former employees helped promote was videos of pandas and videos that encouraged people to go to China. At least one staff member remembers pinning a video of a white man talking about how moving his startup to the country would be good for it. One of the former workers said that the content ByteDance wanted them to promote wasn’t too political and was more of a “soft sell.” But they also said, “Let’s be honest, you couldn’t say no to this.”
Former employees said that TopBuzz had a review system that flagged news stories about the Chinese government so that they could be taken down. They said that the content that was flagged included stories about protests in Hong Kong, stories about President Xi Jinping, and even stories about Winnie the Pooh. Some employees also said that content that showed people who were openly LGBTQ+ was sometimes taken down.
A ByteDance representative said that the claims made by the former employees were “false and silly.” They said this in a statement sent to BuzzFeed:
“The claim that the app TopBuzz, which was shut down years ago, pushed content that was supportive of the Chinese government to the top of the app or worked to promote it is false and ridiculous. TopBuzz had more than two dozen top US and UK media publishing partners, like BuzzFeed, and when they did their due diligence, they didn’t find anything to worry about.”
TopBuzz was shut down in June 2020, but TikTok is still going strong. Authorities and critics have been worried for a long time that ByteDance would use TikTok to spread pro-China propaganda in the US, and we don’t think these new claims will make anyone feel better. In June, another BuzzFeed News article showed how ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly gotten access to private information about US TikTok users. The company moved US user traffic quickly to a new Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, but FCC commissioner Brendan Carr still asked Apple and Google to ban the app “for its pattern of sneaky data practices.”
Brian Stelter of CNN had asked Michael Beckerman, who is in charge of public policy for the Americas at TikTok, if the app could be used to change politics and culture in the US. Beckerman said that TikTok is “not the place to go for politics” and that “the main reason people come to and use TikTok is for entertainment and happy, fun content.” BuzzFeed News says, though, that a lot of young people now get most of their news from TikTok, including politics and breaking news.