TikTok recently published a library of the ads it sends out to users, revealing that it has been flooding the platform with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda ads for months. Some detail how great China’s COVID-zero strategy of strictly enforced lockdowns was while others are fun videos of stunts or beautiful Chinese vistas.
What Propaganda Ads Are TikTok Pushing and At What Scale?
Forbes conducted an in-depth analysis of TikTok’s ad library and found that over 1,000 ads from Chinese state media groups such as CGTN have been pushed on the platform since October 2022. These ads were sent out to millions of users across Europe in the United Kingdom as well as a vast majority of Western Europe including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Poland.
Most of the ads from Chinese state-run media found in the ad library seem to be harmless, promoting the beautiful aspects of China and its people, such as videos of incredible landscapes, talented artists, and landmarks like The Great Wall of China. However, Forbes’ analysis shows that a large portion of the ads were almost rebuttals to recent criticisms from the West and the United States specifically.
The Chinese government has heavily repressed and imprisoned large swaths of the population of its Western Xinjiang region to ‘reeducate’ them for a long time. There is still much debate over the degree of repression the majority Muslim people of Xinjiang suffer from but there is little doubt that it is happening. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a think tank that analyzes satellite imagery, has identified a number of ‘reeducation’ camps and found that thousands of mosques and other religious sites in the area have been razed in the past 6 years.
The US Secretary of State under the Trump administration, Mike Pompeo, went as far as to say that the Chinese government was committing a form of genocide in Xinjiang. Their criticisms focus on the ‘reeducation’ camps as well as allegations that it is forcibly sterilizing residents of Xinjiang.
Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s Secretary of State agreed, saying that “forcing men, women and children into concentration camps” clearly constituted genocide. Despite the heavy criticisms, neither administration has done much if anything about it. Nevertheless, these claims have heavily damaged China’s reputation in the hearts and minds of many Westerners. This is likely why many of the ads it pushed on TikTok referenced Xinjiang.
What Do These Propaganda Ads Look Like?
When you think of propaganda, you are probably thinking of Nazi or Stalinist posters, radio broadcasts, and speeches, actively trying to convince the audience that the state is perfect and untouchable or that their enemies are spawns of Satan and must be destroyed.
You wouldn’t be wrong. That certainly fits the bill. However, it is far from the only kind of propaganda. Propaganda is simply information that is often biased, misleading, or both, that is used to promote or publicize an idea, political cause, or point of view.
Propaganda doesn’t have to be obviously trying to convince you of something. It can be subtle. So do these TikTok ads really fit into the definition of propaganda?
The Forbes analysis of the ad library found that 92 of 124 ads from a single (unnamed) state-controlled media group referred to Xinjiang. Strangely, when you search the keyword “Xinjiang” in the library’s search bar, very few ads come up. In fact, there are only 13, and 9 are ads for the same clothing brand. At first, it may seem like TikTok has removed or is hiding many of these ads but this may be due to a poor search algorithm or the posts simply may not be tagged with ‘Xinjiang.’
When you search “People’s Daily Online Co. LTD”, a prominent state-run media organization, these alleged propaganda ads are plentiful. The most successful ad from People’s Daily with a whopping 175k unique viewers in the UK shows an incredibly beautiful snowy landscape in Xinjiang. Out of the total 717 ads from this organization, most seem to be harmless and unmistakably Chinese videos of stunning landscapes, cute animals, or fun crafts.
Even these seemingly harmless videos espousing the beauties of Xinjiang and China, in general, can be considered propaganda. They are likely designed to promote the idea that Xinjiang is a perfect, beautiful place that would be an incredible place to live. Few of these ads come even close to mentioning the West’s allegations of human rights abuses but they still act to fight against that notion.
Are These Ads Even Allowed Under TikTok’s Terms of Service?
It’s likely that most of the tame ads from state-run media outlets are allowed under TikTok’s terms of service, even though it specifically bans political ads, because of their subtlety. However, not all ads from these outlets are subtle at all. Forbes found a few adverts that specifically criticized Western governments and media groups for their objections to various Chinese policies and actions.
This includes a video of an academic lambasting the west’s criticism of China’s expansive Belt and Road Initiative as well as a vlogger accusing the US media of lying about human rights abuses in China. It’s strange that these ads were allowed on the platform as they are hard to classify as anything but political, though they may have slipped through the cracks of TikTok’s moderation team.
TikTok, like rival social media platforms, labels state-run media accounts on their platform. However, it doesn’t yet label ads from these organizations so it might be hard to tell what is propaganda and what isn’t.
What’s the Harm?
It’s easy to see a short video of a beautiful mountain top, assume it’s a harmless ad to attract tourists and discount all ads from state-run media accounts but the consequences, according to Western governments, could be dire. Politicians in the US and Europe are already fretting about the power and influence that TikTok’s popularity confers to the Chinese government and a flood of state-supported ads only supports their arguments.
They point to the fact that CCP is already using TikTok and other social media platforms to influence the minds of Western populations. Ad libraries from Google and Meta show similar advertisements from Chinese state-run media and the worry is that TikTok’s popularity and ties with China might make it an even better propaganda mouthpiece for the CCP.
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