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TikTok Says That it is Not Fueling Partisan Trends Related to the Israel-Hamas War

TikTok is not happy with the suggestion that its algorithms are helping to amplify content about the Israel-Hamas war, or that it may even be talking sides, with the platform posting a 1,300 word overview which explains why its systems are not biased, and are not seeding pro-Palestine content.

That’s been suggested by some U.S. senators, who have renewed their calls for a ban of the app, due to its algorithms seemingly amplifying anti-Israel and anti-Jewish content in recent weeks.

TikTok’s full summary includes insights into why certain hashtags may be trending, underlining that this is based on user activity, not TikTok’s own guidance.

As per TikTok:

It’s critical to understand that hashtags on the platform are created and added to videos by content creators, not TikTok. Millions of people in regions such as the Middle East and South East Asia account for a significant proportion of views on hashtags. Therefore, there’s more content with #freepalestine and #standwithpalestine and more overall views. It is easy to cherry pick hashtags to support a false narrative about the platform.

TikTok further notes that similar trends exist on Instagram, and other social platforms, while TikTok also says that it doesn’t work to influence the popularity of trends, which are also based on user activity.

“The content people see on TikTok is generated by our community and recommendations are based on the content people have previously engaged with. TikTok does not “promote” one side of an issue over another. In the U.S., we have given our third-party Trusted Technology Provider access to TikTok source code to understand if the system is acting as TikTok intends. We are on a path to allowing an unprecedented amount of third-party access to verify our source code and systems, something no other peer company has done.

Which is in reference to Oracle getting access to TikTok’s code, as part of a deal to ensure that TikTok is allowed to continue operating in the U.S. Which is still, believe it or not, under consideration by CFIUS, which has been reviewing the potential security risks of the app for years now.

That process has been hamstrung by political wrangling, and now, it does seem like TikTok won’t face a U.S. ban unless a significant new reason crops up (i.e. the U.S. and China have a major falling out).

But being viewed as taking sides in geopolitical incidents could also impact this, which is why TikTok is so keen to respond to accusations that it may be influencing trends around such in the app.

But it’s also not a radical suggestion.

In China, the CCP does have significant sway over the content that trends in the Chinese version of the app, called “Douyin”. Which is no big surprise, given the CCP’s broader media control efforts, but it does suggest, in some way, that TikTok could be a vehicle for similar suppression, and/or amplification, based on the CCP’s guidance.

There’s no evidence to suggest that this is happening outside of China as yet. But it remains a concern, and that’s likely more problematic than the potential of U.S. user data being shared with Chinese Government officials.

Though there’s no direct evidence of this happening either, but in combination, this is why TikTok remains a concern for U.S. security officials, and why the specter of a full ban continues to loom over the app.

But TikTok has defended its actions, noting that it is now running a “command center” to combat misinformation related to the Israel-Hamas conflict,

We also added more moderators who speak Arabic and Hebrew to review content related to the war. Between October 7 and October 31, 2023, TikTok removed more than 925,000 videos in the conflict region for violating our policies around violence, hate speech, misinformation, and terrorism, including content promoting Hamas.”

Given the stakes, it makes sense that TikTok is jumping on the counterattack to defend its honor. But it’s another reminder of why the app remains in question, which could still see restrictions imposed on the platform at some stage.

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