Experts: China Will Still Control TikTok’s Algorithm No Matter What Deal Is Made

Shou Zi Chew, chief executive officer of TikTok Inc., speaks during the Bloomberg New Econ
Bryan van der Beek/Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. policymakers are increasingly worried about the possible Chinese influence over what American users see on the popular video app TikTok. A growing number of conservatives including Senators Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Tim Scott (R-FL) are calling for the Chinese-owned app wildly popular with teenagers to be banned entirely.

The New York Times reports that for US policymakers, worries about Chinese influence on what Americans see on TikTok have grown into a significant issue. Sen. Josh Hawley has unveiled a bill to ban TikTok from the United States. The company has developed a “transparency center” to allow US officials to check its proprietary algorithm, which is the secret sauce of computer code that recommends videos to users, is not being influenced by Beijing in light of concerns from the US government about the possibility that the Chinese government may be manipulating what TikTok users view or access data on US users. However, the implementation of this plan is running into practical issues because, as some US officials and independent researchers have noted, figuring out why the algorithm promotes or demotes content is a difficult task that doesn’t always produce satisfactory results.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

CULVER CITY, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 20: The TikTok logo is displayed outside a TikTok office on December 20, 2022 in Culver City, California. Congress is pushing legislation to ban the popular Chinese-owned social media app from most government devices. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

 (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

While US watchdogs may be able to examine the TikTok algorithm’s core code, most of the app’s code will still be created in Beijing. TikTok’s proposal to fend off the growing calls to ban the app in the US is centered on its promise of transparency into its algorithm.

As part of a $1.5 billion plan to wall off parts of its US operations, TikTok, which Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd owns, has offered to allow US-based Oracle Corp access to the algorithm’s code and flag any problems for government inspectors. TikTok has also stated that it would not tolerate any interference from the Chinese government. According to a spokeswoman for TikTok, the company’s proposal includes layers of independent and governmental oversight to guarantee that the platform has no backdoors that could be used to access data or alter content.

Social media analysts have noted that even if TikTok’s administrators could keep up with the frequent code updates, they would also require in-depth knowledge of how the algorithm rated and filtered the app’s enormous library of videos to ensure there was no interference. TikTok could open-source every line of its code, according to Cameron Hickey, the CEO of the National Conference on Citizenship, a nonprofit organization that studies how social media affects civic discourse, and the influence the algorithm has on what is shown won’t be immediately apparent.

Breitbart News has reported on the extent of China’s control over TikTok.

China’s TikTok has confirmed that some of its employees have the ability to make certain videos go viral. The company claims it wields this power to “introduce celebrities and emerging creators to the TikTok community.”

The Verge reports that the company’s startling admission came as a result of TikTok’s “Heating” button, which Forbes claims can be used to add particular videos to users’ “For You” pages, thereby boosting views by avoiding the algorithm that is supposed to be the driving force behind the platform’s experience.


Jamie Favazza, a representative for TikTok, claims that heating is caused by more than just an increase in views for specific videos. He added that TikTok would “promote some videos to help diversify the content experience” This essentially means to make sure that multiple trends are featured in users’ feeds.


Read more at the New York Times here.

Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolan


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