ByteDance, TikTok's parent company based in China, used its now-defunct news app called TopBuzz to spread pro-China messages, according to BuzzFeed News. Former employees who worked at the English-language news aggregator told the publication that ByteDance ordered staff members to "pin" content that showed China in a positive light or content that promoted the country to the top of the app. They were even reportedly required to provide proof, such as screenshots of the live content, to show that they had complied with the company's orders. TopBuzz managed to reach 40 million monthly active users by 2018.
The content the former employees helped promote included panda videos, along with videos endorsing travel to China. At least one staff member also remember pinning a video featuring a white man talking about the benefits of moving his startup to the country. As one of the former employees put it, the content ByteDance wanted them to promote wasn't anything overtly political and took more of a soft sell approach. However, they added: "Let’s be real, this was not something you could say no to."
In addition to promoting pro-China content, former staff members claimed that TopBuzz had a review system that would flag reports on the Chinese government for removal. They said the flagged content included coverage of Hong Kong protests, pieces that mention President Xi Jinping and even those that reference Winnie the Pooh. Some employees also said that content depicting openly LGBTQ+ people were removed at times.
A ByteDance spokesperson denied the former employees' claims and called them "false and ridiculous." In a statement sent to BuzzFeed, they said:
"The claim that TopBuzz — which was discontinued years ago — pinned pro-Chinese government content to the top of the app or worked to promote it is false and ridiculous. TopBuzz had over two dozen top tier US and UK media publishing partners, including BuzzFeed, which clearly did not find anything of concern when performing due diligence."
While TopBuzz was shut down back in June 2020, TikTok is very much alive and well. Authorities and critics have long been worried that ByteDance would use TikTok to spread pro-China propaganda in the US, and we're guessing that these new claims won't be assuaging anybody's fears. Another BuzzFeed News report published in June shed light on how ByteDance employees in China had repeatedly accessed private information on TikTok users in the US. The company quickly migrated US user traffic to a new Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, but FCC commissioner Brendan Carr called on Apple and Google to ban the app "for its pattern of surreptitious data practices" anyway.
CNN's Brian Stelter previously asked TikTok's head of public policy for the Americas, Michael Beckerman, on whether the app could be used to influence politics and culture in the US. Beckerman replied that TikTok is "not the go-to place for politics" and that "the primary thing that people are coming and using TikTok for is entertainment and joyful and fun content." As BuzzFeed News notes, though, a lot of young people now use TikTok as their primary source of information, including politics and breaking news.