In a report by the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz, it was disclosed that the Biden administration has briefed top content creators on TikTok about the war in Ukraine caused by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s recent invasion.
On its surface, providing highly influential online commentators with accurate information to broadcast to the large Gen Z audience on TikTok seems like a necessary move to prevent viral misinformation from spreading among the hyper-online youth. This was the administration’s thought process when they briefed content creators on the Covid vaccine at the height of online scepticism about getting the shot.
The White House told the TikTok influencers who were invited on the zoom call to blame the high gas prices on Putin. pic.twitter.com/qBCEA6r2C7
— Libs of Tik Tok (@libsoftiktok) March 14, 2022
However, the implications of the White House’s information campaign this time around appear much more dubious, as indicated by a noteworthy tidbit caught on Lorenz’s audio of the administration’s briefing. During the meeting, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told creators that Russia “hacked our election” in 2016, a false claim that two-thirds of Democratic voters apparently believed when polled back in 2018. While it is true that the Guccifer 2.0 leaks hampered the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign, and Russian hackers did target almost half of America’s states in the general election, no evidence of tampering with vote counts has ever been presented to the public in the Muller report or elsewhere.
Presenting government-backed falsehoods to young, impressionable TikTok creators on its own has serious implications, especially as wartime propaganda heats up. But it is also troubling to see how the Biden administration’s TikTok creator outreach adds another layer to federal directives over information on tech platforms. Previously, the White House demanded Twitter and Facebook take down what they labelled misinformation. Now, government officials are directly giving influencers wartime talking points to present on a platform indirectly controlled by the government of China, a key Russian ally and US geopolitical adversary.
This move could not only ramp up tensions with China, but it puts creators whose livelihoods rely on their large audiences in an impossible position. On one hand, the executive branch could threaten to unilaterally ban TikTok to coerce influencers, or pressure the platform to suppress certain content they deem insufficiently adherent to government talking points.
On the other hand, the CCP could use its massive power over private enterprise in China to pressure TikTok into what the regime deems US government-sponsored falsehoods, a claim that’s been given some validity after Psaki’s briefing. In the past, China has used its muscle to have pro-Hong Kong content taken off the platform during the civil unrest in 2019, setting the precedent for Chinese intervention on TikTok during tense geopolitical situations.
Given the geopolitical implications of Chinese and American influence on TikTok, and the massive young audience on the platform, TikTok could become the prime battleground for information control as the Russian invasion of Ukraine carries on. Already we have seen the Russian government use their own influencers to promote pro-Putin propaganda and spread their narratives about the war in Ukraine, even as TikTok has banned uploads from taking place in Russia. It’s unlikely that China will prevent this from happening due to their support for Russia, and it means that the Kremlin also sees where the future of information warfare lies.
The possibility of governments using coercive measures on influencers or social media platforms to directly dictate speech poses a major threat to press freedom around the world and must be combated on TikTok and beyond before it’s too late. Lives are at stake, and so is the First Amendment.