Tackling Tik Tok - Our expert explains what the problem is and what's next for the Chinese owned app

Mar 20, 2024

3 min

Lance Hunter, PhD

TikTok is one of the most popular social media sites in the world. In the United States, more than 170 million people and businesses use the app on a regular basis.

Now, the federal government has taken the first step in banning the China-based app unless the ownership group, ByteDance, sells TikTok. The House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill in support of the ban, and now it awaits Congress to act. President Joe Biden has indicated he would sign the bill banning TikTok unless it’s sold, but whether it reaches his desk remains to be seen.

This stems from the fear that China uses user information to their advantage. According to Lance Hunter, PhD, associate professor of political science in Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, the concern is well deserved.

“Even if it’s a privately-owned enterprise, China can still control it, they can still manipulate it to some degree as if it was a state -owned enterprise,” said Hunter.

Hunter’s research focuses on how informational warfare attacks influence politics worldwide. He said the algorithm TikTok uses can play a major role in informational warfare on two fronts.

“One, it’s the data gathering, and that can be used for micro targeting because basically what TikTok can do is collect the data and provide information as to what certain individuals respond to an this is exactly how you can persuade them.”

“Also, there is empirical evidence that China has used TikTok before to try to influence elections to some degree. One example in the 2022 midterm elections in which some candidates from both parties were targeted by TikTok accounts that were controlled by a propaganda agency operating within the Chinese government.”

Hunter added the TikTok algorithm is more advanced than some other social media platforms and more effective in knowing what people like and why they like it.

With so many AI-generated posts, it can be difficult for the consumer to decipher what is legitimate, and what isn’t. There are some red flags for people to be on the lookout for.

“One thing the average person can do is be very wary of what you’re seeing and ask yourself does this seem legitimate?” he added. “If everyone is saying the exact same thing, that’s a tell sometimes. Also, where does this information originate from, and what are the timestamps on the posts? Something else is to look at the individual who made the post. Who are these people and who’s following them? You may be able to see if they are legitimate accounts.”

While China, and Russia for that matter, are trying to influence people in several ways, Hunter said they are also trying to cause division among the American people.

“They do want to influence elections at times, absolutely. But one of their other goals, and sometimes even more predominant goals for them, is to increase division, increase polarization, and that’s a great way to do that,” Hunter said. “Even if you have a temporary reaction, you’ve increased that division which could have longer term effects.”

Are you covering this important and ongoing story? Then let us help with your stories and questions.

Lance Hunter is an assistant professor of political science with a background in international relations. His research focuses on how terrorist attacks influence politics in democratic countries and how political decisions within countries affect conflicts worldwide.

He is available to speak with media about this important topic - simply click on his icon to arrange an interview today.

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Lance Hunter, PhD

Lance Hunter, PhD

Professor of Political Science

Dr. Lance Hunter studies the connection between terrorism and political stability in democracies.

PoliticsTerrorismInternational RelationsVotingCivil Liberties

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