Just for Fun: How China Uses Tik Tok to Further Initiatives

How China Uses Tik Tok to Advance CCP Initiatives

By Charles Davis.

Much has been said about the global phenomena surrounding TikTok in America since President Trump’s August 2020 Executive Order 13943 was issued, then put on hold, and then altogether discarded with the change of presidential administrations. With roughly 87 million users in the United States there is a large support base for this entertaining social media platform. It is amazing what privacies we will willingly give away if the request is packaged right. Here is free entertainment and a way to engage with friends and like-minded people, just let us monitor what you like and give you more of it.

Its ascent to global phenomenon has been incredibly quick, more than doubling its worldwide user base between 2019 and 2021 (291.4 million to 655.9 million). TikTok will have 834.3 million monthly users worldwide in 2023. Meaghan Yuen April 24, 2023 [1]

TikTok’s appearance on the US social media scene began with Musical.ly, a company based in Shanghai with a headquarters in Santa Monica, California. The company allowed users to create short lip-sync videos and was released in 2014. ByteDance Ltd, a Chinese internet technology company headquartered in Beijing, purchased Musical.ly in 2017 as a means to get into the US market. [2] By 2018 ByteDance had pulled the subscriber base into the newly minted TikTok, with all the capabilities of ByteDance data mining and software enhancements.

Just one year later, the US Committee on Foreign Investment was calling for a review of the acquisition. At this point, the primary concern was censorship. As these concerns became evident Senators Schumer and Cotton called for an assessment of the national security risks associated with TikTok. The senators primary concern was ByteDance’s obligation to adhere to Chinese law first and foremost. [3]

In a Letter to the Acting Director of National Intelligence, the Senators stated: “China’s vague patchwork of intelligence, national security, and cybersecurity laws compel Chinese companies to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party… Questions have also been raised regarding the potential for censorship or manipulation of certain content. TikTok reportedly censors materials deemed politically sensitive to the Chinese Communist Party, including content related to the recent Hong Kong protests, as well as references to Tiananmen Square, Tibetan and Taiwanese independence, and the treatment of Uighurs.” [4]

While concern over Chinese censorship was growing in Congress, ByteDance was logging 700 million daily users globally and the first half revenues for 2019 were assessed to hit 7 billion US dollars. [5] Powerful US corporations were also seeing a windfall as a result of TikTok’s popularity. Susquehanna International Group (SIG) owns 15% of ByteDance. The Pennsylvania based investor group’s China arm invested 2 billion dollars across 260 companies in Shanghai. The total investment in ByteDance was only 5 million but it was valued at 15 billion at the time of President Trumps Executive Order 13942, which may explain the mixed political, corporate, and private responses to the order. [6]  

President Trump’s order specifically addressed TikTok, stating: “The spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.  At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.” [7] The President’s concerns went deeper than content manipulation or removal, which was something he had personal experience with.

“TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.  This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.” [8]

He specifically mentioned how TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories of the origins of COVID 19, expressing concern how the platform would be used in future misinformation and disinformation campaigns that served Chinese interests.

The threat from TikTok is greater than information control though. TikTok is collecting biometrics and has been doing so since its release. ByteDance is providing facial recognition data that enables Chinese global video surveillance to distinguish age, gender, and ethnicity. In July 2021, Professors at the University of Melbourne specifically addressed these concerns in a piece published by the university’s magazine Pursuit.

Their research indicates, TikTok’s iOS app has the capability to access and copy from clipboard data, detect objects and scenery, and capture voice and facial recognition data. [9] Wouters and Paterson argue: “These biometrics are unique and personal digital replicas of appearance, behaviour and expression. They are comparable to fingerprints as they can help others identify, surveil and profile people of interest.” [10] Given the era of deepfake and AI integration, having access to hundreds of millions of audio and facial fingerprints presents significant global security concerns. Just consider how many citizens use facial recognition for secure assess or what people keep in their notes or on phone and computer clipboards.

An example of the potential threat this poses, on a global scale, can be found in a December 2020 report from the Washington Post. Harwell and Dou’s research indicates, another Chinese tech giant, Huawei is using facial recognition to establish alert mechanisms for the presence of ethnic Uighurs. “If the system detected the face of a member of the mostly Muslim minority group, the test report said, it could trigger an alarm, potentially flagging them for police in China, where members of the group have been detained en masse as part of a brutal government crackdown.” [11]

The concept went into test phase in 2018 and focused on identifying age, sex, and ethnicity using facial recognition and artificial intelligence. Given the close to 1 billion TikTok accounts, China has the ability to develop software to recognize and target any demographic in the world. SenseTime, China’s largest facial recognition company trades on the Hong Kong exchange and is currently on the US entity list (associated with the Defense Authorization Act) which bans US exports and investments. But we continue to allow TikTok to function as a primary data mining entity for the colossal database fueling this industry.

Taigusys is another Chinese company, likely benefiting from the data accumulated through TikTok. Taigusys is the leading developer of emotion recognition software. They are taking facial recognition and developing AI cues for the emotion associated with the expressions captured. As you can imagine, through shared videos, TikTok is capturing virtually every expression known to mankind.   A March 2021 article, by the Guardian’s Michael Standaert, indicates this is a 36-billion-dollar industry nested very effectively in an ideological campaign of positive energy, encouraged by Xi Jinping. Management at Taigusys laud this technology as a means to predict dangerous behavior within prison and mental health facilities, allowing faster and more appropriate response to crisis. [12] This same technology, implemented in large urban environments would allow for predictive assessments of crowd and protestor volatility, providing early response opportunities to quell unrest or descent.

Data collection for facial and emotional recognition companies is not the only use the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has found for TikTok. Initial Congressional concerns over disinformation seem to have been validated in recent months. A June 2023 Washington Times report identified video tracks purportedly from a Russian special operations soldier, which surfaced on TikTok, were actually created by China. The investigative report indicates the fictional personality “Baoer Kechatie” is associated with Chinese deepfake technology that was drawing approximately 400,000 followers.  An April 2023 report from the Defense Science Board indicates Identity Exploitation and Control (IEC) may be the most difficult of the five new dimensions of conflict. [13]

Probably the most concerning statement regarding IEC is the assessment China and Russia are working in tandem to maximize this capability.

“China is using these new means of identity exploitation and control to pursue dissidents and non-Han Chinese minorities including Mongols, Tibetans, and Uyghurs. China also is leveraging its global harvest of data on individuals to expand its reach to target and manipulate individuals on a global scale including more than 10,000 living outside of China. Russia is adopting key elements of China’s domestic surveillance system including Huawei telecom equipment. While this does not change the scale of China’s IEC, it leverages Russia’s cyber skill-sets and can propagate a worldwide China-Russia IEC threat.” [14]

All the examples provided correlate with China’s approach to Cognitive Warfare and present a new and dynamic threat to global stability.

The NATO allied Command Transformation defines Cognitive Warfare as “the activities conducted in synchronization with other instruments of power, to affect attitudes and behaviors by influencing, protecting, and/or disrupting individual and group cognitions to gain an advantage.” [15] Similarly, the Taiwan Institute of European and American Studies describes cognitive warfare as “…activities undertaken to manipulate environmental stimuli to control the mental states and behaviors of enemies as well as followers in both hot and cold wars.” [16] Combatant commanders have always sought out ways to erode an adversary’s moral. Now, our adversaries are seeking ways to stimulate emotional responses and affect critical decision-making through social media. 

Jana Mantua’s recent work “China’s Focus on the Brain Gives it an Edge in Cognitive Warfare” discusses decision dominance and winning hearts and minds. Mantua sees China’s approach on two fronts, cognition and subliminal cognition. The primary component of cognition is the ability to collect and analyze physiological signals. TikTok provides the platform for CCP collection and analysis, and it provides an avenue of approach for the subliminal cognition. During the subliminal cognition phase of Chinese cognitive warfare, content will be collected and pre-treated with new messages, while applying defensive technology against adversary information operations. [17]  Simply put, China is collecting data on what stimulates our brains and how, in an effort to determine the best approach to win hearts and minds through subliminal messaging.

It is likely the CCP is also developing techniques to stimulate mass behaviors based on target groups, since its facial recognition program can determine age, sex, ethnicity and its emotional recognition technology can determine the responses elicited. Combining these three initiatives (TikTok, facial recognition, emotional recognition) allows the CCP to use systems with built in cameras (phones and computers) to identify target groups, engage in cognitive warfare and evaluate the response rendered, without the target group realizing the attack is occurring.

Mantua asserts, “China continuously employs internet commentators, or ‘wumao,’ to spread propaganda online that is consistent with the state’s interests. They also selectively amplify the voices of influencers, including Westerners, who are promoting China of their own volition.” [18] Other researchers see similar issues with CCP exploitation of free speech. Lim and Bergin indicate, “While the CCP carefully polices its domestic walled garden, it exploits the freer spaces outside of China’s borders to project its influence on the world stage.” [19] China sees the cognitive domain as the next evolution in warfare. This battlespace is particularly significant to China, from a cultural perspective. Cognitive Warfare follows the teachings of Sun Tzu by affording and opportunity to defeat an adversary without armed conflict, while subliminal cognition provides plausible deniability, allowing China to save face on the global stage.

While TikTok may be a fun pastime for the American population, it is a strategic capability being leveraged globally by our greatest adversary.

[1] https://www.insiderintelligence.co010598m/charts/global-tiktok-user-stats/

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/lip-syncing-app-musical-ly-is-acquired-for-as-much-as-1-billion-1510278123

[3] https://www.cotton.senate.gov/news/press-releases/cotton-schumer-request-assessment-of-national-security-risks-posed-by-china-owned-video-sharing-platform-tiktok-a-potential-counterintelligence-threat-with-over-110-million-downloads-in-us-alone#:~:text=Leader%20Schumer%20and%20Senator%20Cotton,U.S.%2C%20as%20well%20as%20a

[4] https://www.democrats.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/10232019%20TikTok%20Letter%20-%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-tiktok-cfius-exclusive/exclusive-u-s-opens-national-security-investigation-into-tiktok-sources-idUSKBN1XB4IL

[6] https://thehustle.co/10052020-sig/

[7] https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-addressing-threat-posed-tiktok/

[8] ibid

[9] https://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/tiktok-captures-your-face

[10] ibid

[11] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/12/08/huawei-tested-ai-software-that-could-recognize-uighur-minorities-alert-police-report-says/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2021/mar/03/china-positive-energy-emotion-surveillance-recognition-tech

[13] https://dsb.cto.mil/reports/2020s/DSB-SS2020_NewDimensionsofConflict_Executive%20Summary_cleared.pdf

[14] https://dsb.cto.mil/reports/2020s/DSB-SS2020_NewDimensionsofConflict_Executive%20Summary_cleared.pdf

[15] https://www.act.nato.int/article/cognitive-warfare-strengthening-and-defending-the-mind/#:~:text=Together%2C%20these%20two%20words%20paint,cognitions%20to%20gain%20an%20advantage

[16] https://academic.oup.com/jogss/article/7/4/ogac016/6647447

[17] https://irregularwarfare.org/articles/chinas-focus-on-the-brain-gives-it-an-edge-in-cognitive-warfare/

[18] https://irregularwarfare.org/articles/chinas-focus-on-the-brain-gives-it-an-edge-in-cognitive-warfare/

[19] https://www.ifj.org/fileadmin/user_upload/IFJ_Report_2020_-_The_ China_Story.pdf


Note: Thoughts and assessments in this work are those of the author and are not meant to reflect organizational opinions of the Warrant Officer Career College or the U.S. Army.

This article by Charles Davis was first published by Small Wars Journal on July 18, 2023. Republished with permission of author and editor of SWJ.

About Charles Davis 6 Articles
CW4 Charles Davis serves on the faculty of the U.S. Army Warrant Officer Career College. He currently instructs International Strategic Studies at all levels of Warrant Officer Education. CW4 Davis is a graduate of the U.S. Army War College Strategic Broadening Program and holds a Master’s Degree with Honors in Intelligence Studies from American Military University.  CW4 Davis is also a recipient of the Military Intelligence Corps Knowlton Award. The opinions and views of the author are his own, and do not represent those of the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.