When I first read the email, just after 6 a.m. on March 16, I couldn’t quite believe what I had seen. I was still waking up, so wondered if I was dreaming it. But it turned out to be true.
The subject line, “‘TikTok Master Messaging’ Document,” made me anticipate something altogether different. Occasionally, I’ll get barely literate messages from angry old men — and they are always men — pointing out my folly in trusting TikTok, which they consider a Chinese puppet company.
But this was different. This was a message from a staff member working on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which will be quizzing Shou Zi Chew, TikTok’s CEO, live and in person this Thursday. They said the committee had spoken to a number of experts in advance of their hearing, some of whom referenced my story on a series of internal TikTok documents I had obtained that outlined how the company sought to downplay its links to China.
The committee was wondering if I would be willing to send them a copy of the leaked document in full. “This would of course be strictly confidential,” the staffer added.
You can read the email here. I tweeted it, only redacting the staff member’s name so they wouldn’t receive any hate from an online mob.
Needless to say, I didn’t send them the document — nor would I ever. A journalist always protects their sources, no matter who comes calling. I emailed back explaining as much, and also asked to interview the chair of the committee ahead of the hearing. I never heard back.
I refused to hand over my document because of journalistic integrity, but also because I think there’s a risk that the document could be misconstrued.
I am far from a friend of TikTok. In my stories, I have revealed that TikTok sent US job applicants’ data to China without telling people; that the platform was selling its algorithm as a B2B product; and that the UK government told TikTok the “strictly confidential” identity of the next Chinese ambassador to the UK. I have repeatedly uncovered user numbers that the platform doesn’t want made public.
In my book on TikTok, I revealed the existence of the ability to “heat” videos — or artificially send traffic to chosen videos outside of the app’s algorithmic control — two years before it was reported more widely by Forbes. I also reported in the book for the first time that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, had left buckets of user data for Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese sister app, open on the internet, and that TikTok paid Cardi B in the high six figures to post half a dozen videos on the app.
I’ve spoken to scores of TikTok employees, past and present, in pursuit of a connection to the Chinese state. But I haven’t discovered it.
Fellow journalists who have spoken to TikTok press representatives have told me that company reps open my emails requesting comment with trepidation. One journalist said a rep told them that invariably I’ll be asking them to comment on an internal policy, a leaked document, or a new feature they didn’t even know existed yet. And I’m currently working on more tough stories about the platform. (If you’ve got any tips, please contact me for my Signal number.)
But those tough stories won’t focus on the company handing over data to Chinese authorities, or security risks associated with its connection to the Chinese state. Because I haven’t found any evidence of either. I do want to find that connection, because like any journalist, I am egotistical and want to be the one to break a story like that. I’ve been trying for years to find any links to the Chinese state. I’ve spoken to scores of TikTok employees, past and present, in pursuit of such a connection. But I haven’t discovered it.
I can’t say that link doesn’t exist. But I can say that I and other, more talented journalists have been chipping away at TikTok’s edifice. We now know the company has spied on journalists and has workplace harassment issues. TikTok’s finances are constantly being leaked. But none of us has found the smoking gun. And I don’t believe my fellow reporters are any less eager to find it than I am.
We are in a strange position politically. Donald Trump's legacy lives on in the way that we have our own personal fictions, which we fiercely believe to be fact or have repeated so often we forget the truth. Among those fictions: TikTok is a proven risk. TikTok is a puppet of the Chinese state. TikTok is a Trojan horse, waiting to be triggered by Chinese President Xi Jinping to bring down the West.
Trump launched a series of online advertisements in 2020 saying, “TikTok is spying on you.” It’s a sentiment that has been repeated by other politicians, including Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who worries about TikTok’s links to China.
None of this is true. At least as far as I can tell. Yet to hear politicians on both sides of the aisle talk about it, it’s verifiable fact. And they want the app banned because of it.
These US politicians are taking a curiously Chinese approach: crack down and censor for the benefit of harmony, rather than allow free enterprise from a company that has shown it’s willing to bend over backward to try and answer concerns, and has made what appear to be good faith efforts to address issues as they arise.
We’re likely to see a lot of heat, and not much light, from Thursday’s congressional hearing. There will be the usual protestations from TikTok that it doesn’t have Chinese government connections, and the usual bluster from the politicians that TikTok’s answers aren’t good enough. But for the sake of the 150 million Americans now using the app, we have to hope that TikTok's answers suffice.