Following its recent glamorous attacks in Washington D.C. this Tuesday, TikTok welcomed journalists at its Los Angeles headquarters to a new center it created to attract American policymakers, regulators and civil society leaders. was announced.
“How much of a national security threat would joining a Wi-Fi network here be?” Bobby Allyn, a technology reporter for NPR, joined me and other attendees in an executive presentation. I made a joke while waiting for it to start. He seemed unsure of what to say until TikTok staffers reassured him that Allin was joking.
TikTok, an increasingly influential social media app used by more than 130 million Americans, faces intense political scrutiny in the United States over its parent company’s ties to China. Less than three years after President Donald Trump tried to ban it, the company’s talks with U.S. regulators have stalled and it is facing new demands for a nationwide ban. , prohibits the use of apps from government-issued devices.
TikTok’s new Los Angeles Transparency and Accountability Center provides a behind-the-scenes view of TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation practices. Controversy arose over concerns that the hugely popular app could be weaponized to promote pro-Chinese government messages and misinformation.
While the information TikTok provided about algorithms and content moderation was not particularly clear-cut, what stood out was the details it shared about its plans to split some of its U.S. operations out of China, which remains a Chinese company. was owned. The event also provided a rare opportunity for the reporter to ask his wider TikTok staff questions about content policies and algorithms.
In her opening address to reporters, TikTok COO Vanessa Pappas acknowledged that there is general skepticism about the power of social media platforms to dominate parts of our digital lives. I didn’t mention any specific political concerns about TikTok.
“I really understand the criticism,” Pappas said of Big Tech’s role in controlling “how algorithms work, how moderation policies work, and how data flows through the system.”
However, Pappas said TikTok plans to implement other initiatives, including initiatives like a new center and beginning to open up TikTok’s API to researchers, giving her an “unprecedented level of transparency.” We address this concern by providing what we call
elephant in the room
There’s one big reason we’re all here at the TikTok office. It’s China. But Pappas and other company executives didn’t actually say “China” in their statements for the record.
TikTok is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, which operates its own version of the app called Douyin in China.
Critics have long argued that Chinese-owned companies are protected by China’s national security laws.While there is no evidence that the Chinese government directly demanded US user data from TikTok or its parent company, A BuzzFeed News investigative report recently revealed that in June 2022, TikTok employees in China were able to access user data in the United States.
At Tuesday’s event, TikTok shared more about how it reassures the public that it will not be influenced by the Chinese government. Its “Project Texas” is a major partnership with Texas-based tech giant Oracle. Yes, all US data previously stored on TikTok’s overseas servers will be moved to the US. The project also requires inviting a team of outsiders, including Oracle, to audit its algorithms.
Another part of the project will create a new subsidiary called TikTok US Data Security (USDS). The subsidiary oversees the app’s content moderation policies, trains TikTok’s recommendation engine with US user data, and approves editorial decisions. Under TikTok’s plan, USDS employees will report to a yet-to-be-finalized independent board of directors with strong national security and cybersecurity credentials.
This all comes about a month after TikTok was found to be spying on Forbes journalist Emily Baker White, who was covering leaked details about the project. TikTok said some of its employees had unauthorized access to White’s personal user data, as well as that of several other journalists, in an attempt to identify and track personal sources. Admitted. The company fired an employee involved in the surveillance and said it “misused its authority” to obtain user data, but the incident fueled suspicion against the company.
These allegations could be one reason why TikTok’s negotiations with the U.S. Commission on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) have dragged on. CFIUS is an interagency governmental committee that considers whether commerce poses a threat to the national security of the United States. CFIUS is reviewing his 2017 merger of TikTok and Musical.ly by ByteDance, which gave him the power to dissolve the deal and force TikTok to be sold to a US company . Both TikTok and CFIUS are reportedly close to reaching an agreement to avoid that scenario, but negotiations have stalled.
It is widely accepted that political escalation between China and the United States contributed to the delay. It is not a good time for political institutions and elected officials (including President Biden) to endorse what is considered pro-China.
“TikTok recognizes that this is really a political issue. Convincing politicians is more important than convincing national security officials,” said Georgetown University’s law and technology expert. Professor Anupam Chandar said:
Chander was part of a small group of academics, lobbyists and data privacy experts that TikTok gave a briefing on Project Texas in Washington DC a few weeks ago. The challenge is, “In certain political circles today, ties to China are poison,” Chander said.
That may explain why TikTok executives avoided mentioning China on Tuesday.
go under the hood
TikTok’s new Transparency and Accountability Center provided reporters with details of its elusive recommendation algorithm and some concrete examples of how the app moderates content, but nothing was obvious. bottom.
One tutorial in the middle was about TikTok’s recommendation algorithm called “Code Simulator”. We’ve shown you how TikTok shows you 8 videos of trending topics you might be interested in when you first open the app. The tutorial showed a snippet of code used to program a machine learning model that recommends that content.
A second, and more engaging, educational exercise was a simulation of what it’s like to moderate controversial content on TikTok. and the caption was captioned that he had just been vaccinated. Details of TikTok’s misinformation policy were displayed next to the video. (The video was supposed to be humor and not real health misinformation, so it wasn’t a violation.)
The exercise helped us better understand the strict demands that TikTok’s 10,000+ employees around the world have to make every day for trust and safety. But I wanted to learn more about the process of creating TikTok’s guidelines and designing its algorithm. Who decides what content is seen by more people on TikTok, and how does the app decide when to promote or demote certain content?
According to TikTok staff, the app only promotes 0.002% of the videos on the platform, and that decision is made by the content programming team, which identifies which videos are likely to trend. . One example they gave was how the company manually backed the Rolling Stones when the band first joined TikTok.
TikTok said it is allowing some outside experts access to more in-depth details inside. Its entire source code, along with details about exceptions made to manually promote certain trending content, are publicly available in another top-secret room in Maryland (you must sign an NDA to participate). is needed). The company also said Oracle employees are reviewing TikTok’s code at another transparency center in Maryland.
TikTok’s Transparency Center gives us a little more insight into how the company and its app operate, but not how content, data, and moderation decisions are made within the company. , is not yet known exactly.
Meanwhile, TikTok is taking some new approaches to shed light on data practices and algorithms. Under TikTok’s USDS plan, a group of Oracle employees and security experts will oversee the company’s proprietary algorithm that dictates what millions of people see each day when they log into the app. I’m here. There is no external accountability to Facebook or YouTube to that level. Companies like Meta and Google also track vast amounts of personal information online, but they don’t attract the same national security concerns as TikTok. Even if TikTok is currently sharing information out of political necessity, the fact that they are sharing information is a net positive for society.
Whether TikTok can change its mind on the Capitol remains to be seen. These latest initiatives are a first step, but much more is needed to convince TikTok’s strongest skeptics. . It also requires verification from external partners and experts.