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A report by The Macdonald-Laurier Institute says TikTok, which is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance – has been a venue for operations that spread misinformation and aim to sway political opinions.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Misinformation campaigns are a significant way that social-media app TikTok can be used to serve Beijing’s political goals, and Ottawa needs to confront this form of foreign interference in Canadian affairs, a new report says.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute report, published Tuesday, urgently calls on the Canadian government to follow the example of the United States, where President Joe Biden signed a bill into law last month that gives TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, one year to divest from the app or face a ban.

The report, written by journalist and independent researcher Sze-Fung Lee, argues that the content for influence operations is likely to be boosted because ByteDance is based in Beijing. Furthermore, because Chinese laws require individuals and organizations to co-operate with national intelligence efforts, the data collected through TikTok could be sent to the Chinese government.

Canada has been conducting a security review of TikTok since September, Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne revealed in March.

The report says TikTok – which hit one billion users in 2021, according to ByteDance – has been a venue for operations that spread misinformation and aim to sway political opinions. One example, the report says, is an attempt to defame a political party in Taiwan. The account, Straits Plus, released multiple videos saying Taiwan was in a state of war and danger, and that the country’s Democratic Progressive Party was to blame.

Straits Plus is managed by a bureau under the direct control of the Fujian Provincial People’s Government in China, the report says. On the TikTok page, there are no labels indicating its connection to the state.

TikTok’s short video format also improves the app’s strategic utility, the report says: “Filled with quick cuts, intense background music, and engaging visuals – these short videos effectively amplify the PRC messages while often triggering emotional responses that can be manipulated.”

The report says Chinese regulations and algorithm recommendations prioritize “positive energy” and crack down on content that “threatens national security.” Thus, TikTok’s “For You” algorithm “serves as the perfect tool for Beijing to pump its political narratives on the platform.”

Robert Diab, professor of law at Thompson Rivers University, said the concerns around influence operations are not unique to TikTok.

“Any group, including the Chinese government, can disseminate content, engage in an influence operation on a platform without really any control over the platform itself,” he said. “I mean, it’s open.”

Prof. Diab said many people are unsettled by the fact that TikTok is owned by a company in China: “Companies in China are not entirely free from government interference. There’s a spectre, the possibility of direct influence.”

A little more than half of Canadians support a TikTok ban, according to a Leger poll of 1,605 Canadians. The poll, which was conducted from March 23 to 25, does not have a margin of error because online polls are not considered truly random samples.

The poll also indicated that 66 per cent of TikTok users are concerned about their data privacy on the app.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute report says the issue of data is particularly concerning because TikTok collects more data than other social-media giants. For at least 15 months, TikTok collected Media Access Control addresses. These addresses allow for the gathering of data over a long period of time because they cannot be reset or altered.

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