As pressure ramps up on TikTok from the political class, it is cracking down on covert political campaigns on its platform. The move comes at a time when the US election campaign is heating up and ByteDance-owned TikTok is being targeted for its alleged ties to China.

TikTok has faced bipartisan scrutiny in the US for concerns that the platform is used by US adversaries like China, Russia, and Iran to influence public opinion. Let’s dive into whether these campaigns are really a problem on TikTok and what the platform is doing to try to keep it’s platform free of political propaganda.

TikTok Cracks Down on Covert Political Campaign

In its release, TikTok said, “We relentlessly pursue and remove accounts that break our deceptive behavior rules to help ensure the content people see and the accounts they follow on TikTok are genuine.” It would now regularly report on influence campaigns where it finds a coordinated action to influence political opinion.

It defines covert influence operations as “coordinated, inauthentic behavior where networks of accounts strategically work together to mislead people or our systems and influence public discussion. This can include attempting to undermine the results of an election, influencing parts of an armed conflict, or shaping public discussion of social issues.”

On its website, TikTok has listed a month-wise breakup of the covert influence operations it disrupted in 2024. In the first four months of 2024, the popular short video app disrupted 15 such operations and removed 3,001 accounts associated with the activity.

It has targeted networks operating out of Ukraine, Indonesia, Serbia, Bangladesh, Germany, Guatemala, as well as Iraq. While all these networks targeted local audiences, it cites instances where networks based outside the US targeted American audiences.

For instance, it disrupted 65 accounts whose network operated from Iran and primarily targeted audiences in the UK and the US. According to TikTok, before October 2023, the network “used inauthentic means to gain user engagement on narratives surrounding UK domestic policy discourse.”

TikTok Influencers Are Trying to Influence Public Opinion on Israel-Hamas War

The conflict in Gaza is a key talking point when it comes to the debate over influence campaigns on TikTok. Many pro-Israel politicians and pundits regularly claim that the US’ adversaries are using TikTok to influence the minds of the youth in America.

In particular, they point to the massive wave of pro-Palestinian and anti-war protests at universities across the US which has since spread across the world. Their main goals are to get their universities to divest from Israeli and defense companies, trying to put pressure on the war machine. They also want to pressure the US government to stop supporting Israel with tens of billions of dollars of military aid.

For whatever reason, many don’t believe that these student protestors could actually be motivated by the unprecedented brutal death and destruction in the Gaza strip, arguing that there must be an influence campaign inserting anti-war ideas into their heads.

While there is little to no evidence supporting this theory, TikTok has indeed discovered a handful of influence campaigns that seemingly came from China (though they have nothing to do with Gaza or Israel).

In February, TikTok disrupted 16 accounts that operated from China and targeted the US audience. According to TikTok, “The individuals behind this network created inauthentic accounts in order to artificially amplify positive narratives of China, including support for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) policy decisions and strategic objectives, as well as general promotion of Chinese culture.”

We also know that China has run quite a few ads on the platform. However, they all seemed to be entirely focused on showing off the best things about China and its people like beautiful nature videos and fun unique talents performed by Chinese people.

Some Republicans See TikTok as a “Digital Fentanyl”

While there is bipartisan support among US lawmakers to rein in TikTok, Republicans have especially been critical of the company and some have termed the social media app a “digital fentanyl.”

In his op-ed on Fox, former US Vice President Mike Pence termed TikTok as “Chinese spyware” and said allowing the app to “spew CCP-sanctioned propaganda poisoning the minds of American children is just wrong.”

He added, “We would never have let Russia run the nightly news during the Cold War, and we certainly can’t let China do the same now.”

Rep. Rob Wittman also echoed similar views and said, “TikTok is digital fentanyl that is addicting our children while exposing millions of Americans to hostile propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party.” Again, most experts think that these claims are extreme, if not patently absurd, given that the only ‘propaganda’ that has been found on TikTok is more like a series of travel brochures than anything else.

Social Media Is a Potent Election Tool

To be sure, social media is a potent tool that politicians across the world use to connect with the electorate. Also, social media campaigns – both covert as well as overt – are no secret.

Various studies have shown how social media impacts elections. Research by Princeton University showed that Twitter hurt Donald Trump’s vote share in the 2016 and 2020 US presidential elections. According to the University, its research showed “a negative effect of Twitter adoption on Trump’s vote share but do not do so for Republican candidates in congressional races in the same election.”

Research by the Center for Media Engagement ahead of the 2020 US elections also showed that political marketers see influencers as a good channel to connect with voters who see them as more trustworthy. However, many influencers never publicly reveal that they are being paid by a political party.

In essence, while these influencers produce biased (and paid-for) content, many users see it as genuine and form their opinions based on them.

According to the Center for Media Engagement, “top-down propaganda from influencers are better able to evade detection systems built to detect political bots and sockpuppets and to defy regulators concerned with digital free speech—all while using influencers’ captive audiences to more effectively prey upon fraught emotions during a highly contentious election.”

Other Social Media Companies Have Similar Problems

While TikTok is an easy scapegoat for politicians given the app’s connection to China, other social media networks have problems with biased political influencers. These influencers, big and small, can be found aplenty on networks like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter.

As for politicians, while they would lash out at influencers on the other side of the political divide, most also have their army of social media warriors.

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Funnily enough, even though President Joe Biden signed a bill that threatens to ban TikTok unless Bytedance sells its stake, his campaign plans to use the platform for at least the next year. Though this shouldn’t be too surprising given the platform’s reach as it is used by almost one in every three Americans and is particularly popular among young people (who Biden is losing faster than ever, likely due to his Israel policy).

Biden isn’t alone here, however. Most politicians now see social media influencers as a key moving part of their campaign strategy. While TikTok disrupting and publicly reporting such activities is a welcome step, it might not be enough to curb influence campaigns and political influencers spreading undisclosed political ads.