Topics often suppressed by the Chinese government within its borders, including Tibet, the Hong Kong protests and the Uyghur population, appear to be unusually underrepresented on TikTok compared to Instagram, according to a report published Thursday by online researchers.
The findings could add to a wave of concern that Beijing may be influencing content on the popular video platform. TikTok is owned by ByteDance, a Chinese company.
The report, from the Network Contagion Research Institute at Rutgers University, analyzed the volume of posts with certain hashtags on TikTok and Instagram, which has hundreds of millions of other users.
For popular pop culture and political terms like #TaylorSwift and #Trump, researchers found approximately two Instagram posts for every one on TikTok, according to the report. But that ratio jumped to more than 8 to 1 for #Uighur or #Uighur, 30 to 1 for #Tibet, 57 to 1 for #TiananmenSquare and 174 to 1 for #HongKongProtest.
“We assess a strong possibility that TikTok content will be amplified or suppressed based on its alignment with the interests of the Chinese government,” the report says. Joel Finkelstein, founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, said: “It's not credible that this could happen organically.”
TikTok, which has repeatedly said the Chinese government has no influence over the app, rejected the investigation.
“The report uses flawed methodology to reach a false and predetermined conclusion,” said company spokesman Alex Haurek. Haurek said the hashtags were created by users, not TikTok, and that “anyone familiar with how the platform works can see for themselves that the content they refer to is widely available and accusations of suppression are unfounded.” ”.
The company added that a third of videos viewed on TikTok do not have any hashtags and that Instagram has been around longer.
The war between Israel and Hamas has reignited concerns about how social media platforms moderate content and Tik Tok has been specially examined. TikTok has been accused of promoting pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel content to young Americans, which the company has called unfair and inaccurate. But the allegations have raised new questions from lawmakers and researchers about how Beijing could influence TikTok content, especially as the app grows as a news source for Americans under 30.
Several Republican lawmakers have renewed their calls regulate or ban TikTok. A bipartisan committee of House representatives required a classified FBI briefing later this week that would detail its efforts related to ByteDance, TikTok and possible surveillance. A spokesperson for the group did not respond to a request for comment on whether the briefing had occurred.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., said the report showed that TikTok was “a tool to blatantly spread disinformation and suppress content that undermines the Chinese government.”
Finkelstein said his group continued its study after TikTok, in response to criticism over content related to the war between Israel and Hamas. saying Hashtags like #FreePalestine were also more frequent than #StandWithIsrael on Instagram and Facebook. He added that the report employed a methodology similar to that of TikTok.
TikTok's Haurek disputed that claim. “To suggest that this report employed TikTok's methodology is false, and we have repeatedly made clear that comparing hashtags is an inaccurate reflection of activity on the platform,” he said.
Joshua Tucker, co-director of the Center for Politics and Social Media at New York University, cautioned against drawing too strong conclusions from the institute's report. He said people could post about different topics depending on the platform they were on or leave tags on certain photos and videos, for example.
Academic and civil society researchers. have been urging TikTok to give them access to data to study the spread of information on the app. Tucker said the NCRI report was a reminder of the need for that access.
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