Updated Mar 11, 2024 - World

Top intel agency says China used TikTok to influence U.S. elections

A person in Bath, England, holding a phone with TikTok's logo on March 10.

A person in Bath, England, holding a phone with TikTok's logo on March 10. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

China's government has used the wildly popular video-sharing platform TikTok to influence recent U.S. elections, the American intelligence community warned in its annual threat assessment on Monday.

Why it matters: The warning comes during an election year and as the House prepares to vote on legislation to force China's ByteDance to divest from TikTok or else the platform will be banned from app stores in the U.S.

  • Congress is pursuing the legislation over national security concerns about the Chinese government's access to U.S. user data and its ability to conduct influence campaigns through the platform.

Context: The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the head of the U.S.' 18 intelligence agencies, releases a yearly assessment on the major threats to the nation's interests around the world.

What's inside: This year's report said: "TikTok accounts run by a [Chinese] propaganda arm reportedly targeted candidates from both political parties during the U.S. midterm election cycle in 2022."

  • It warned that China's 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."
  • It said Beijing now has more capabilities to conduct covert influence operations and disseminate disinformation, and that such operations may be carried out by "individuals not under its direct supervision."
  • It's specifically is increasing efforts to mold U.S. public discourse around its sovereignty issues and territorial claims in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.

Of note: The report added that China monitors Chinese students studying abroad for dissident views and has influenced research by U.S. academics and think tank experts.

The big picture: Overall, the report said the U.S. will face "an increasingly fragile global order" strained by competitive state actors — including China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — regional conflicts, other disruptive technologies and the economic toll of climate change.

"The world that emerges from this tumultuous period will be shaped by whoever offers the most persuasive arguments for how the world should be governed, how societies should be organized, and which systems are most effective at advancing economic growth and providing benefits for more people, and by the powers—both state and non-state—that are most able and willing to act on solutions to transnational issues and regional crises."
— ODNI's 2024 threat assessment
  • It said the fierce ongoing competition between authoritarian and democratic forms of government has damaged efforts to encourage cooperative approaches to global issues, like climate change.
  • It said emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and biotechnologies, will exacerbate the competition.

The other side: "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 said in a statement Monday.

  • "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."

Zoom out: China's government denies that it interferes in elections and typically seeks to blame the U.S. for election meddling.

Go deeper: 52 countries saw "severe" declines in freedom last year, report finds

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from a TikTok spokesperson and further context.

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