January 28, 2020

America should challenge China on worldwide social media dominance

By Kristine Lee and Chris Estep

After one year during which lawmakers on Capitol Hill, federal regulators, and the Pentagon all intensified their scrutiny of TikTok, the social media platform owned by a Chinese company, the popularity of the app among American consumers has only grown. An article in The Wall Street Journal recently described the platform as the “most habit forming social app out there,” while Vox recently declared the Washington Post TikTok account to now be an “unofficial campaign stop” for the 2020 presidential hopefuls.

The American fixation with TikTok, however, tells only part of a broader story about Chinese efforts to shape the global information architecture through using popular social media platforms. Beijing is fundamentally exploiting imbalances between the information environments of China and democracies to advance its geopolitical agenda. Indeed, the virality of some of the Chinese social media apps has allowed Beijing to quietly export its model of surveillance and censorship, as American platforms are increasingly difficult to access within Chinese borders. During the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong last year, the Chinese censorship machine hummed at full throttle as Tencent suspended the accounts of WeChat users, including in the United States, who had criticized Beijing.

Beijing has also leveraged the relative openness of American social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, for its strategic messaging and propaganda efforts. Even Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter, as the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs opened its own official Twitter account last month. After Twitter decided to remove more than 900 accounts and suspended 200,000 more originating from China that sought to discredit the protests in Hong Kong, Beijing flipped the script, accusing American platforms of censoring legitimate views that are held by Chinese people.

Read the full article in The Hill.

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