How TikTok could be a player in election disinformation


On our Vergecast interview series, Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel and Silicon Valley editor Casey Newton spoke with Alex Stamos, former chief security officer for Facebook and director of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Stamos recently co-authored an op-ed in The Washington Post about Chinese propaganda around the novel coronavirus on US social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. On the show, he discusses how these companies still allow Chinese state media ads on their platforms and what actions should be taken against these accounts.

Stamos was also asked about the potential interference in the 2020 election in the United States from bad actors on these platforms and how well tech companies are handling it. A platform that has gained popularity since the last election is TikTok.

“TikTok is starting to deal with this stuff. And they’ve got, you know, some really legit trust and safety people who’ve joined here thinking a lot about it,” Stamos said. “But they’re also having to work within the strictures of ByteDance, a Chinese company, and they’re having to bootstrap very quickly. They also have a difficult disinformation problem in that their content is mostly visual. And so that just makes technically this a lot harder than stuff that’s text-based.”

Listen to the full interview here or in your preferred podcast player.

Below is a lightly edited excerpt from the conversation.

Casey Newton: Do you think TikTok will be potentially… I don’t know about a decisive player in the election, but is it possible that that’s sort of the disinformation vector that surprises everyone this year?

I think it could be, yeah. When I think about this, I just threat model it out. Let’s say I work for GRU … and I’ve been asked, “Okay, I want to one, drive divisions in American society. And two, I want to support Donald Trump again. How do I do that?”

And the best way to do it is actually kind of a replay of 2016. The best way to actually support Trump’s election is to peel off Bernie voters away from Biden. That was the GRU playbook in 2016. It actually worked pretty well. And where are Bernie voters? They’re on TikTok and Instagram. And so if I was the Russians right now, I would put all of my money, all of my effort behind TikTok and Instagram. Instagram seems to be disconnected from Facebook’s operation here. And then TikTok is totally on their own, and they’re starting from scratch. And so those are the places you’d be most effective, I think, getting away with it.

Nilay Patel: When you talk to people who are going to TikTok — who are, like you said, “legit” — are they concerned that it’s owned by a Chinese company, that that’s interference there?

I think they are well aware of issues there. I don’t know of any examples where they’ve been overridden, but I wouldn’t know either. So I think that is something they have to be concerned about.

Now, when it comes to the kind of this disinformation around the election, I’m not sure that’s relevant. I think where that’s going to be more relevant is around whether or not they enforce the rules against Chinese actors. So you know, I would not see TikTok US enforcing their disinformation rules against a Chinese state media, that kind of thing.

But when it comes to kind of the Russian trolling in the election, I think that’s less relevant. A bigger issue there is that the Chinese companies have just not done as much investment in the trust and safety side other than in political topics that are of interest to the Communist Party. And so I think that that’s part of their issue.



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