TikTok Downplays China Connection In Update To Congressional Testimony, Despite Recent Revelations

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Jason Cohen Contributor
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Popular video platform TikTok sent a letter to lawmakers and downplayed its ties to China, despite recent media reports that have challenged these claims.

TikTok sent the letter in response to hundreds of follow-up questions from lawmakers following TikTok CEO Shou Chew’s testimony in March. TikTok acknowledged having employees based in China but minimized its significance despite recent reporting and investigations from The Wall Street Journal and Forbes that have revealed lists the company and its Beijing-based parent ByteDance have created that are allegedly used for censorship and data collection.

Last year, Forbes revealed that ByteDance had spied on Forbes’ journalist Emily Baker White, who covered TikTok for the publication. TikTok’s letter to lawmakers claims the spying was an independent action undertaken by members of IARC (Internal Audit and Risk Control) who utilized new methods including “accessing or attempting to access TikTok user data” to find out if there were ties between Baker-White and employees at the company. (RELATED: TikTok Continues Censorship Of Think Tank’s Account Promoting Anti-CCP Documentary)

TikTok now describes these steps as a “misguided effort.” During Chew’s testimony in March, he disagreed with the characterization that it was “spying” or even “surveillance.” The company says an outside counsel led an investigation and discovered employees “accessed Baker-White’s IP address, among other information.”

“In his role as CEO, Mr. Chew has not interacted with the Chinese government regarding TikTok,” according to the letter.

TikTok had access to a list of users who were watching LGBT-related videos on the platform for a year or more, according to former employees who spoke to The WSJ. TikTok reportedly limited access to the user information in 2021 before deleting it entirely in 2022, but it is still accessible to the company’s subsidiary that manages U.S. data, according to The WSJ.

Kevin Mayer, co-CEO and founder of Candle Media and former CEO of TikTok, speaks during the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, on May 1, 2023. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

ByteDance has employees in China that use a moderation system including word lists designed to identify or restrict content related to topics such as former President Donald Trump and the persecuted Chinese Uyghurs, according to Forbes. Over 50 lists contain the term “TikTok” in their title, but the company told Forbes they have never enforced the lists on their platform.

ByteDance may also be monitoring online conversations regarding the COVID-19 lab leak theory across company platforms, according to documents obtained in an investigation by Forbes and published on May 5. One “sensitive words” list the outlet published was called “science and medicine” and seemed to refer to the origin of the pandemic, including words such as “pangolin” and “leaked experiment.”

TikTok denied the company ever applied these word lists to censor on the platform, according to Forbes. “We believe many of these list titles have translation errors and are not relevant to TikTok,” TikTok spokesperson Jamie Favazza told the outlet.

TikTok and ByteDance did not immediately respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s request for comment.

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