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The NATO to TikTok pipeline: Why is TikTok employing so many national security agents?

TikTok has become an enormously influential medium that reaches over one billion people worldwide. Having control over its algorithm or content moderation means the ability to set the terms of global debate and decide what people see. And what they don’t.

by Alan Macleod 

Part 1

As the bloody conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate, so does the online propaganda war between Russia and the West. A prime example of this is the White House directly briefing influencers on popular social media app TikTok about the war and how to cover it. As the crisis spirals out of control, Americans have turned to TikTok to view real time videos and analysis of the invasion. With the app estimated to have around 70 million U.S. users, the White House is keenly aware of its impact. “We recognize this is a critically important avenue in the way the American public is finding out about the latest … so we wanted to make sure you had the latest information from an authoritative source,” President Joe Biden’s director of digital strategy, Rob Flaherty, told 30 top TikTok influencers.

TikTok itself has taken steps to align itself with U.S. government policy, deleting more than 320,000 Russian accounts and removing at least 41,000 videos peddling misinformation about the war. In addition to this, it has placed warning labels marked “Russia state-controlled media” on 49 accounts linked to the Russian government. Like other big social media platforms, it has not done the same to Western state-owned outlets such as the BBC, RTÉ, or the CBC.

All this is a far cry from 2020, when President Donald Trump signed an order that would shut down TikTok within 45 days unless it was sold to an American buyer. The Chinese-owned platform, the U.S. government alleged, posed a severe national security threat to the United States. Although TikTok is a Chinese company, it is, ironically, completely blocked inside China, their domestic market being served by a sister app, Douyin, which functions in a similar way but is separated by the Great Firewall. Thus, there is no contact or overlap between the two. After Douyin’s success in China, its parent company ByteDance launched a global platform.

ByteDance first reached a deal to sell TikTok to Microsoft, then to Oracle and Walmart. Yet the new Biden administration, without explanation, quietly dropped the sale requirement indefinitely in early 2021, saying in a court filing that it had begun a review of security concerns cited by the Trump administration.

That decision left buyers and onlookers alike perplexed. Yet studying the backgrounds of dozens of key TikTok employees brought on since the 2020 scare suggests that, instead of destroying TikTok, perhaps the U.S. national security state has co-opted it instead.

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