Social media algorithms come under scrutiny
American tech corporation Oracle is auditing ultra-popular social media platform TikTok’s algorithms and content moderation rules, to check for manipulation by the Chinese Communist Party, Axios reported on Tuesday. The probe is part of parent company ByteDance’s ongoing efforts to clear its name after former president Donald Trump threatened to ban it from the US entirely.
The move is part of “Project Texas,” the company’s response to a BuzzFeed report that revealed some China-based employees had access to TikTok users’ data. TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew described the project as an effort to “help build trust with users and key stakeholders by improving our systems and controls” as well as to “make substantive progress toward compliance with the final agreement with the US government that will fully safeguard user data and US national security interests.”
TikTok admitted that some Chinese employees are able to access its data but insisted this was “subject to a series of robust cybersecurity controls and authorization approval protocols overseen by our US-based security team.” The company has also promised its AI will be trained in Oracle’s cloud and pledged to move all US users’ data to Oracle servers located in the US. It will delete users’ private data from its own servers and “fully pivot to Oracle cloud servers located in the US,” it reassured Washington in a statement following the BuzzFeed debacle.
BuzzFeed’s article inspired a bipartisan revival of anti-TikTok sentiment and led Federal Communications Commission head Brendan Carr to entreat Apple and Google to remove the app from their app stores, claiming its “pattern of surreptitious data practices” poses “an unacceptable national security risk.” He described ByteDance as “an organization that is beholden to the Communist Party of China and required by the Chinese law to comply with PRC’s surveillance demands.”
US tech giants have reason to fear TikTok wholly unrelated to any potential Chinese government links, as the app gets more engagement per day from users than comparable American-made apps like Instagram and Snapchat. Coupled with the fact that TikTok’s algorithm is hailed in the tech press for “knowing users better than they do themselves” – the app has become infamous for its alleged ability to guess users’ sexuality, uncover past traumas that may or may not exist, and even inspire mental illness – it’s not hard to see why American Big Tech wants to understand what makes it tick.