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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 3 - Not just NATO

NATO, however, is far from the only organization newly connected to TikTok. The company’s new Global Lead of Integrity and Authenticity, Chris Roberts, is a former senior director of Technology Policy at the Albright Stonebridge Group (ASG), a powerhouse strategy and consulting firm started by late-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The ASG has been perhaps the major staffing source for President Biden’s administration, with at least 10 ASG employees appointed to key positions in national security, state and foreign policy positions.

Before ASG, Roberts worked, in his own words, on “special projects” for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The NDI was founded by the Reagan administration after a series of CIA scandals necessitated the creation of a network of front groups to take the heat off the agency. The NDI exists to channel U.S. government money, training and support to political and social groups around the world. This could charitably be described as “democracy promotion,” although cynics might label it “overthrowing governments.” As Roberts himself said, “The nature of democracy promotion is that the most important countries to work in are also the ones where the government may not want your ‘help.’

At TikTok, Roberts’ role is to “Lead the Integrity and Authenticity policy team. This team covers misinformation, synthetic and manipulated media, covert influence activity, and spam and inauthentic engagement.

One group infamous for peddling misinformation and carrying out covert operations is the CIA. Yet rather than identifying operations, they might be conducting, TikTok has instead recruited a former agent to serve in an important position. Since January, Beau Patteson has been working as a threat analyst for TikTok’s Trust and Safety Division. Between 2017 and 2020, however, Patteson was a targeting analyst for the CIA, after which he joined the State Department to become a foreign service officer. In addition to his role at TikTok, Patteson is also, according to his social media profile, a military intelligence officer in the United States Army.

One step closer to the halls of power is Victoria McCullough, who previously worked for the Department of Homeland Security and for the White House itself. Like Patteson, McCullough now works on trust and safety at TikTok. Another trust-and-safety TikTok staff member, Christian Cardona, spent nearly 13 years in senior roles at the State Department across the Middle East and Europe before seamlessly moving to the social media giant.

Virtually every former spook or state official this investigation found works in very specific (and highly politically sensitive) fields such as trust, safety and content moderation, rather than in banal areas like marketing, customer service or sales. Yet TikTok’s new recruits come from some of the least trustworthy organizations anywhere in the world – organizations that should not be anywhere near the levers of power of such a popular platform.

The national security state has been the source of some of the most outlandish and damaging fake news claims in recent years. This includes lurid allegations about so-called “Havana Syndrome” and the “BountyGate” hoax. Going further back, falsehoods about weapons of mass destruction or an immiment genocide helped push the U.S. to war in Iraq and Libya, respectively. Yet individuals from many of these institutions are now in charge of deciding what is real and what is fake, and which content to promote or suppress.

In this light, the 2020 pandemonium about TikTok being a national security threat looks increasingly like a power play from the national security state. These dire warnings, and even the threat to completely shut down its platform, subsided only after TikTok began appointing Western officials to important positions within its organization, thereby giving the state considerable influence over the content and direction of the app.

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