FILE PHOTO: A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration taken January 6, 2020. Photo: REUTERS
A group of top Republican U.S. senators on Tuesday ramped up pressure on TikTok, asking the Trump administration to assess the threat that the popular Chinese-owned video sharing app might meddle in U.S. elections.
In a letter dated Tuesday, Senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton and other lawmakers cited alleged censorship by TikTok of sensitive content, including a video critical of China's treatment of Uighur minorities, as well as alleged attempts by Beijing to manipulate political discussions on social media apps.
"We are greatly concerned that the (Chinese Communist Party) could use its control over TikTok to distort or manipulate (political) conversations to sow discord among Americans and to achieve its preferred political outcomes," the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and the director of the FBI.
A company representative said that TikTok, though not a "go-to" for political news, was "proactively investing to safeguard our app," and taking cues from the experience of peers during the last election.
"TikTok already has a strict policy against disinformation, and we don't accept political ads," the representative said, adding that content and moderation policies are led by a California-based team and aren't "influenced by any foreign government."
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment while an ODNI official confirmed receipt of the letter and said "we will respond accordingly."
The FBI also confirmed receipt of the letter and flagged recent comments by FBI Director Christopher Wray, arguing that China "is going to continue to try to misappropriate our ideas, influence our policymakers, manipulate our public opinion, and steal our data. They will use an all-tools and all-sectors approach — and that demands our own all-tools and all-sectors approach in response," he added.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Wednesday that TikTok was under a national security review and that his agency would make a recommendation to the president this week.
The lawmakers, joined by Republican Senators Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst Thom Tillis, Kevin Cramer and Rick Scott, asked the officials to say whether Beijing could amplify certain political views and conduct influence operations through the popular app, which is owned by Beijing ByteDance Technology Co.
"If evidence emerges of CCP electoral interference via TikTok, would ByteDance be eligible for sanctions?" under an executive order on foreign electoral influence, the lawmakers asked.
TikTok is in the crosshairs of the Trump administration as U.S.-China ties have soured over the pandemic and Beijing’s move to curb freedoms in Hong Kong. This month, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said action was imminent to address national security risks posed by TikTok.
Trump's poll numbers have been sagging as he prepares to face Democrat Joe Biden in the November election. In 2019, special prosecutor Robert Mueller's report found extensive cases of Russian meddling that benefited the Trump campaign in the 2016 election.