Senate Calls TikTok To Answer Questions Over Foreign Interference

Senate Calls TikTok To Answer Questions Over Foreign Interference
Image: Getty Images

TikTok has been asked to appear before Australia’s Senate to answer questions about its risk to Australian democracy.

The video-sharing app has been the target of political scrutiny in recent months after the country’s top politicians, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison, questioned the company’s independence from the Chinese government. An unnamed federal politician had also told the Herald Sun TikTok was ‘hoovering’ up the data of the 1.6 million Australians who’ve downloaded it since its launch in May 2019.

TikTok has strenuously denied these claims, stating that its user data is stored in Singapore, outside of the Chinese government’s jurisdiction.

“TikTok does not share information of our users in Australia with any foreign government, including the Chinese Government, and would not do so if asked. We place the highest importance on user privacy and integrity,” TikTok Australia’s manager, Lee Hunter, said in a media statement.

“[The Herald Sun’s] news report is based on an unnamed source, supported by an organisation which has disclosed the receipt of foreign funding to publish its reports.”

A Senate committee is investigating TikTok and other major social media apps

The Senate’s Select Committee on Foreign Interference through Social Media has asked that TikTok appear before it in a public hearing on Friday, August 21. It will be asked to answer to some of the concerns related to its dealings with the Chinese government, given TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is headquartered in Beijing, China’s capital.

TikTok has told Gizmodo Australia it intends to send representatives to the public hearing in August.

“TikTok is committed to transparent dialogue with our community, including policy makers and we will work with the Committee as we engage with this process,” a spokesperson said in an email.

“TikTok welcomes ongoing discussions with government audiences as we work to remain a safe, fun and creative platform for people to express themselves.”

The Senate committee, which began its work in December 2019, is tasked with looking at how social media is used in Australia to influence political elections, as well as how platforms are used to spread misinformation and disinformation.

In June 2020, it heard from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a defence and strategic policy think tank, that the 2019 federal election may have been influenced by disinformation bots being operated out of countries in Eastern Europe.

ASPI’s submission to the committee revealed its analysis had found at least 130,000 Facebook users had been exposed to the disinformation campaign.

“A combined audience of 130,000 Facebook users across four Facebook pages were steered off the platform towards content farms that generated advertising revenue from each page view,” the submission read.

“These activities have the potential to skew Australia’s political discourse, influence voting behaviour and affect electoral outcomes.”

The Senate committee has also requested representatives of Facebook, Twitter and Google appear at a second hearing in September 2020. Its final report is still a while off — it’s expected to be released in March 2022.