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Report: 300 TikTok, ByteDance employees are current, former Chinese gov’t workers

TikTok (Solen Feyissa, Flickr/Released)
August 12, 2022

Hundreds of LinkedIn profiles of employees with popular video-sharing app TikTok and its parent company ByteDance revealed 300 current TikTok and ByteDance employees either previously worked for Chinese state-run media outlets, or still do.

According to a Forbes report published Wednesday, the LinkedIn profiles reveal strong links between ByteDance and the Chinese government’s propaganda office at a time when the propaganda office is heavily investing in social media to promote Chinese Communist Party (CCP) narratives.

23 of the 300 profiles LinkedIn reviewed were reportedly created by current ByteDance employees who manage company departments overseeing content partnerships, public affairs, corporate social responsibility and “media cooperation.”

50 of the profiles are for employees specifically working with TikTok. One of those profiles is for an employee who previously worked as Chief Correspondent for Xinhua News, the Chinese government’s official press agency.

15 of the profiles are of ByteDance employees who work concurrently with Chinese state media outlets. Those outlets included Xinhua as well as China Radio International and China Central Television (CCTV) and China Global Television (CGTN).

Xinhua, China Radio International, CCTV and CGTN were all listed by the State Department in 2020 as missions of a foreign government under the Foreign Missions Act.

In response to Forbes’ requests for comment, both ByteDance and TikTok did not dispute that the 300 employee LinkedIn profiles showed their current and former Chinese state media connections.

ByteDance spokesperson Jennifer Banks told Forbes that the company makes its hiring decisions “based purely on an individual’s professional capability to do the job.”

“For our China-market businesses, that includes people who have previously worked in government or state media positions in China,” Banks added. “Outside of China, employees also bring experience in government, public policy, and media organizations from dozens of markets.”

In response to a question about the 15 employees concurrently working with Chinese state media company, Banks said ByteDance “does not allow employees to hold second or part-time jobs, or any outside business activity, that would cause a conflict of interest.”

Banks told American Military News, “This inaccurate report draws from outdated online profiles of people who never worked for state media, no longer work for our company, or work on China businesses only. Our conflict of interest policy does not allow employees to concurrently hold positions at China state media organizations. We have been clear that we hire based on an individual’s professional capability to do the job – and we celebrate our workforce for the diverse insights and experiences they bring.” 

Neither TikTok or ByteDance answered Forbes’ questions about if they have collaborated with Chinese state media entities to produce or distribute content.

TikTok had announced in March that it would begin to attach a warning label to the content of “some” state-controlled media outlets, though such labels have not been attached to content by China News Service, Xinhua, CGTN and the Global Times — which are all state-run media outlets active on TikTok.

The revelations about ByteDance and TikTok’s ties to Chinese state media come amid years of U.S. government skepticism about the Chinese-owned popular social media app.

In 2019, the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy banned TikTok on government-issued devices.

In 2020, then-President Donald Trump tried to either ban TikTok in the U.S. or force the company to hand over its U.S.-based operations to a U.S. partner company. President Joe Biden overturned those Trump-era efforts.

In July, TikTok admitted its employees outside the U.S. could access U.S. user data. The company said the procedure for viewing such data outside the U.S. follows “a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our U.S.-based security team.”

In July, BuzzFeed News also reported claims raised by former ByteDance employees that the company had pushed pro-China messages to American users of its now-defunct TopBuzz news app. The app ran from 2015 to 2020. According to Fortune, ByteDance closed down the TopBuzz venture in June of 2020 after it failed to gain popularity among western users the way TikTok had.

ByteDance has denied the allegations raised by BuzzFeed.

Days after BuzzFeed’s reporting on TopBuzz, Bloomberg News reported the Chinese government had sought to set up a “stealth propaganda” account on TikTok. An internal company message sent to Elizabeth Kanter — who is TikTok’s head of government relations for the UK, Ireland, Netherlands, and Israel — said theres a “Chinese government entity that’s interested in joining TikTok but would not want to be openly seen as a government account as the main purpose is for promoting content that showcase the best side of China.” Kanter ultimately decided with a company lawyer Erich Andersen to veto the idea.

This article has been updated with additional information from a ByteDance spokesperson.