US intel chief says she can’t rule out possibility that China will use TikTok to influence 2024 elections

US intelligence officials “cannot rule out” the possibility that the Chinese government will use TikTok to influence the 2024 US elections, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers on Tuesday.

Haines’ comment, in response to a question from a lawmaker during a House Intelligence Committee hearing, comes after US intelligence agencies raised concerns about the reported use of TikTok in the 2022 US midterm elections in their annual Threat Assessment report.

“TikTok accounts run by a PRC propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022,” says the report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), using an acronym for the Chinese government.

A senior US intelligence official said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday that “the intelligence community can’t rule out that China would use TikTok to try to influence the 2024 US elections, but the IC has no indication that they intend to do so.”

Tuesday’s testimony before the House panel by senior US intelligence officials came ahead of a high-stakes vote on Wednesday, when the Republican-controlled House is slated to consider a bill that would force TikTok to divest from Chinese parent firm ByteDance or face a nationwide ban.

“We regularly take action against deceptive behavior, including covert influence networks throughout the world, and have been transparent in reporting them publicly,” a TikTok spokesperson told CNN. “TikTok has protected our platform through more than 150 elections globally and is continuing to work with electoral commissions, experts, and fact-checkers to safeguard our community during this historic election year.”

US national security officials are preparing for a divisive 2024 US election in which multiple foreign adversaries, from China to Russia to Iran, could try to use social media platforms to interfere with or influence the vote.

Social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, have long been under scrutiny from US lawmakers over handling of foreign disinformation campaigns that emerge on their platforms. But TikTok has been in sharp focus on Capitol Hill this week. The bill has some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and from the White House.

“[W]hen it comes to [TikTok’s] algorithm and the recommendation algorithm, and the ability to conduct influence operations, that is extraordinarily difficult to detect and that’s what makes it such a pernicious risk,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers at Tuesday’s hearing.

Wray and other US officials have argued that the Chinese government could pressure TikTok’s owner ByteDance to effectively weaponize its algorithm to target Americans with disinformation.

TikTok rejects these allegations. A statement on its website reads: ByteDance “is not owned or controlled by any government or state entity.”

In the days before the House vote on the divestment bill, TikTok has conducted a public relations blitz in its defense. The company sent some users full-screen pop-ups in the app warning that the bill “strips 170 million Americans of their Constitutional right to free expression,” a reference to the estimated number of American users of the platform.

American employees in leadership roles at TikTok in New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles made the decision to send those messages to users, the TikTok spokesperson told CNN.

But in a sign of how deeply TikTok is distrusted among senior national security officials, Wray said in response to a question at the House Intelligence Committee hearing that he could not rule out the possibility that the Chinese government ordered TikTok to send the pop-up notifications.

China’s aggressive use of online propaganda

The new annual Threat Assessment report also includes the clearest statement yet about US intelligence officials’ concerns that China is getting more aggressive in using online propaganda and influence operations to try to undermine US democracy.

“Beijing’s growing efforts to actively exploit perceived U.S. societal divisions using its online personas move it closer to Moscow’s playbook for influence operations,” the report says. China is showing “a higher degree of sophistication in its influence activity,” including by experimenting with generative artificial intelligence, according to the report.

The Chinese government routinely denies US allegations of election influence.

“We always adhere to the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry has said. “US general elections are US internal affairs and who becomes the next president is up to the American people.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping told US President Joe Biden that China would not interfere in the 2024 US presidential election when the two men met in November, CNN previously reported.

But that’s not something US officials are taking for granted. In the White House Situation Room in December, senior US national security officials held an exercise on how to respond if, on the eve of the election, a Chinese-made deepfake video emerged online that purported to show a Senate candidate destroying ballots, CNN previously reported.

The Chinese government “may attempt to influence the U.S. elections in 2024 at some level because of its desire to sideline critics of China and magnify U.S. societal divisions,” the new annual Threat Assessment report reads. “Even if Beijing sets limits on these activities, individuals not under its direct supervision may attempt election influence activities they perceive are in line with Beijing’s goals.”

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