Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Go read this report on ByteDance employees with ties to Chinese state media

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Hundreds of employees at TikTok’s parent company ByteDance used to work for Chinese state media — and more than a dozen apparently still do. Forbes reports.

Forbes examined LinkedIn profiles of ByteDance and TikTok employees and found that 300 people had previously worked for state media entities, holding current positions at the tech company, including content partnerships, strategy, policy, monetization and “media collaboration.”

From the profiles Forbes reviewed, 15 suggested that the ByteDance employees work at the tech company and the state media at the same time. It is possible that these employees simply failed to update their profiles — employees contacted by Forbes did not respond. But the overlap between state media and ByteDance staff seems well established.

Forbes write that ByteDance spokesperson Jennifer Banks did not dispute that the 300 employees worked at the company or were previously affiliated with state media. Hiring is done “purely on a person’s professional ability to do the job,” Banks said Forbes.

“For our companies in the Chinese market, these are people who have previously worked in the government or state media in China. Outside of China, employees also bring experience in government, public policy and media organizations from dozens of markets.”

Regarding the 15 people whose profile suggests they have both jobs, Banks shared: Forbes that ByteDance “does not allow employees to hold a second or part-time job, or any outside business activity that would create a conflict of interest.”

TikTok’s rise to become one of the most popular apps in the US has raised concerns from lawmakers that the platform’s ties to China pose a national security risk. Forbes writes:

People spend more time on TikTok today than on any other app. In recent months, the app has been hailed as a powerful driver of American culture, and has quickly become a critical player in our electoral and social debate. The LinkedIn profiles raise concerns that China could use TikTok’s broad cultural influence in the US for its own ends, a fear that led a cohort of US politicians, including former President Donald Trump, to call in 2019 for a ban on the app.

The profiles also provide critical insight into how ByteDance manages its relationship with Chinese state media entities. In addition to TikTok, ByteDance operates numerous other websites and services, including two of mainland China’s most popular apps: Douyin (a short video app) and Toutiao (a news aggregator). Chinese state media are among the most popular accounts on Douyin, where they have many millions of followers. Many of the LinkedIn profiles work on Toutiao and Douyin, who are subject to strict Chinese censorship laws.

A few reports from the past few months detail the various ways TikTok is connected to China-based owner ByteDance. In June, Buzzfeed news reported that US TikTok user data was repeatedly accessed by employees in China. And a Gizmodo July’s story showed how far TikTok goes take distance from ByteDance, including emphasis on “downplay”[ing] the Chinese association.”

The Forbes story notes moving from state media publishing to working at ByteDance can be a pretty typical career path – people move between government and tech companies also in the US. But for a company already closely watched for its ties to foreign governments, the additional connections through employees are likely to raise questions.

Read the Forbes story here.

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