In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s campaign rally in a half-empty Tulsa arena, Democrats openly cheered the revelation that activists had used Chinese social media platform TikTok to mislead the campaign into expecting a vastly larger crowd. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gleefully tweeted that the Trump campaign had been “ROCKED by teens on TikTok” who “make me so proud” and that “we see and appreciate your contributions in the fight for justice.” A closer consideration of the Chinese ownership of TikTok, however, raises serious concerns about the future of American democracy in a web that is increasingly controlled by our adversaries.
For a party that has spent the better part of the past four years -- and one special counsel investigation -- condemning foreign interference in the electoral process, the Democratic response to Trump’s subverted rally was jarring. In the place of party calls to secure social platforms against influence operations and the need for government action to protect the campaign process from meddling was suddenly a chorus of approval over activists’ act of sabotage. One of the organizers of the disruption effort has even been recruited by a pro-Biden organization.
What happened with the Tulsa rally? By most accounts, teenagers and other young activists across the United States organized using TikTok to reserve large numbers of tickets to the event in order to mislead organizers into expecting a much larger crowd. Entry was first-come/first-serve, meaning the subversive mass ticket reservation effort didn’t actually prevent legitimate supporters from attending, but it did cause the campaign to publicly boast about the likely size of the crowd, making the low actual turnout that much more striking -- and embarrassing.
One of the core findings of the Mueller Report was that a primary goal of Russian interference in the 2016 election was to sow chaos and division in the electoral process. While electing Donald Trump was a secondary goal of these efforts, the Russians aimed to undermine confidence in the fairness of the democratic process no matter who won. Sabotaging a campaign rally by inflating public expectations that are then undermined is a classic kind of influence operation designed to sow a softer sort of disruption.
To date there have been no indications that non-Americans led or participated in the Tulsa ticketing campaign, so at first glance this would appear to be simply a creative digital-era domestic ploy to demoralize Trump voters and make the president look bad. The element that makes this particular action of such concern from an influence standpoint is it was organized not on an American-owned platform like Twitter or Facebook, but on an explosively popular Chinese-owned one.
What makes a given post “go viral”? Today’s social platforms use opaque algorithms that weigh myriad unknown factors to decide which calls to action become global phenomena and which fade into obscurity. What we see in our news feeds each day is determined not by what is most relevant to us but rather what social media companies believe will drive the most monetizable behavior. This is why, in 2014, Twitter users saw the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., play out in real-time, while, conversely, Facebook users saw video upon video of the ALS ice-bucket challenge. Facebook’s algorithms prioritized the smiling-if-chilled images of celebrities and friends dumping ice over their heads to raise money for a deadly disease, while Twitter users saw a raw, unfiltered live-stream of protesters clashing with police amid a fog of tear gas.
The criteria used to devise these algorithms are closely held secrets, but the companies’ human moderation policies remind us how freely the platforms intervene in the electoral process around the world. In the 2018 Pakistani election, Facebook directed its moderators to apply additional scrutiny to posts by one party, while another was dismissed as “benign.” As the New York Times put it, “Facebook is a center of news and discussion during voting” and the company’s policies “most likely shaped those conversations — even if Pakistanis themselves had no way of knowing.” Similarly, in India, any post containing the phrase “Free Kashmir” was subjected to additional scrutiny, while criticism of religion was to be removed. A number of far-right political parties in Europe, including some holding seats in the European Union parliament, were banned entirely.
With social media platforms favoring the campaign messages of some parties over others in their moderation guidelines, what is to stop them from making changes to their algorithms that subtly elevate posts supporting one candidate over another?
We will never know what factors TikTok’s algorithms considered when it promoted posts calling for undermining Trump’s rally. At the same time, the company has in the past established rules banning or suppressing content viewed as objectionable to the Beijing regime.
There is no evidence today that the Tulsa rally posts went viral on TikTok for anything other than grassroots organic interest from a passionate community of anti-Trump activists. At the same time, as with its American brethren, we simply have no idea what kinds of content TikTok’s algorithms favor or disfavor and whether inadvertent design decisions might elevate or penalize specific kinds of content. As a Chinese company, there is little the U.S. can do to ensure the company does not intervene in our domestic political speech.
Looking back, it is remarkable that in the space of four years, Democrats have gone from condemning electoral influence to copying it themselves to openly embracing a Chinese social media platform as a means to upend campaign rally expectations. Who knows what will come next.
In 2016 the Russian government co-opted American social media platforms to meddle in the presidential election. What will happen this year when our adversaries actually own and operate the very means by which our society debates its future? The public square is no longer just privatized, it has been outsourced to China.